‘Polar’ Review: Gratuitous in Every Way — For Better and for Worse

Netflix tries grindhouse with mixed results.

In the opening moments of Netflix’s new movie Polar, a retired assassin snorts cocaine outside his mansion in the middle of the jungle as a beautiful young woman steps out of a swimming pool, offers him oral sex, and then kills him instead. This all happens in the span of a few minutes. It’s captivating, thrilling, and completely over the top all at once, and you could say that for pretty much the entire movie as well.

Hitting [Netflix] on Friday, January 25, Polar feels like John Wick cranked up way past 11. The action may not be quite as exquisite, but there’s a brutality to Polar that’s just as satisfying, even when director Jonas Åkerlund (a goth punk Scandinavian best known for his Beyonce music videos) seems most interested in making the audience squirm in their seats.

And squirm you will. There’s endless violence, torture porn, and an actual (softcore) porn scene starring Mads Mikkelsen. Buried under all that, there’s also a touching story about two depressed people struggling to find their own humanity, but considering its launchpad on Netflix, Polar makes it dangerously easy to switch over to The Office when things get ugly.

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'Polar'

Polar really is gratuity for its own sake, and that means it’s not for everyone. Åkerlund and Mikkelsen have made a movie for themselves, but anyone else is more than welcome to come along for the ride.

“We’re both quite big fans of this exploitation feel,” Mikkelsen tells Inverse. “You know in the old days they had sexploitation, blaxploitation. There is something there that can be brutal and heartbreaking if instead of just touching the subject you stay on it and keep it in your face.”

“We decided early on that we wanted to push it a little bit and not hold back and not censor ourselves,” Åkerlund adds. “Plus, we’re Scandinavian so we have a little bit of a different shock level than the rest of the world.”

The plot? The plot is beside the point, but Polar follows Duncan Vizla (Mikkelsen), an unstoppable assassin who’s just days away from retiring with a hefty pension. His boss (Matt Lucas in an impressively gruesome performance) would rather keep that money for himself. So he sends a team of killers after Duncan. As they wreak havoc across the U.S.A., Mikkelsen hides out in a cabin in Montana where he meets a depressed neighbor (Vanessa Hudgens) and tries to start a new life. Until the assassins show up.

From that point on its back to the non-stop sex, violence, drugs, and more violence right up until the very last scene.

Matt Lucas as the assassin boss Blut in 'Polar.
Matt Lucas as the assassin boss Blut in 'Polar.
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Mikkelsen and Hudgens in 'Polar'

The acting is fine (Mikkelsen’s monotone works perfectly as a desensitized killer, while Hudgens manages to find some truth in her few scenes as a depressed middle American teacher with no hope for the future). But much like the plot, the acting doesn’t really matter. It’s all about the violence, well, that and the visuals.

Polar can be overwhelming to look at. The camera moves rapidly, and whenever Duncan closes his eyes we see a kaleidoscope of murder meant to symbolize his scarred subconscious. The colors are saturated in a node to the movie’s origins as a graphic novel, though the source material looks nothing like what we see on screen.

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A recent page from the web comic 'Polar'

Victor Santos’ Polar is a minimalist bloodbath, relying on a limited palette of reds, browns, and blacks. That doesn’t translate to the movie, which Åkerlund says he wanted to avoid turning into another Sin City, but he still took inspiration from the original Polar and the graphic novel format in general.

“The fact that we’re making a graphic novel gave us a little freedom in pushing stuff far and making stuff over the top,” he says.

It’s interesting to imagine what the Sin City version of Polar might have been. A more faithful adaptation could have looked like John Wick directed by Kandisnky, mixing intense violence with abstract visuals. Instead, Åkerlund and Mikkelsen give us a more straightforward, enjoyable grindhouse movie. It’s a perfectly decent way to spend your Friday night, just as long as you know what you’re getting into.

Polar hits Netflix on Friday, January 25.


*New on Netflix next in February 2019.

Media via Netflix, Victor Santos