Adaptations of graphic novels can either extremely hit or extremely miss. It’s difficult to capture their larger-than-life style, acts of violence, and over-the-top characters that are confined to the panels on the page. With Jonas Åkerlund adaptation of Victor Santos’ Polar for Netflix, he proves it is possible to translate a graphic novel’s gore and violence onto the screen with even more stylistic flair than its source material. Åkerlund took Santos’ minimalist illustrations and made something bright, oversaturated, and delicious.
Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen plays Duncan Vizla, or the Black Kaiser, who is days from retirement from his life as an assassin. He starts to settle into retired life in a small town in Montana, shopping at the local grocery store, frequenting the town’s diner, and striking up a quiet friendship with his neighbor, Camille, played by Vanessa Hudgens. But, just a few hundred miles for his snowy, idyllic set up, a hit is put on his head so his employer, the Damocles Corporation, won’t have to pay him his $8 million pension. So, a group of younger, showier, and somehow more violent hitmen set out to kill the Black Kaiser. What follows is a trail of blood, revenge, and Mads Mikkelsen’s beautiful bare ass.
The beauty of this film is its dedication to a very specific neon-colored aesthetic that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Hot Topic. But somehow this film makes that work in a way that doesn’t make me cringe. Åkerlund leans into the outlandish action scenes and takes them to an extreme, from Vizla nailing a guy to a wall to a different kind of nailing, in the form of an extended sex-turned-gun-fight sequence.
Mads Mikkelsen is the film’s crown jewel, playing Vizla with a balance between grizzled and soft that makes him so likable. He executes his jobs with precision then comes home to his fish and just wants to unwind with a beer. Mikkelsen’s face seems to settle into one unreadable expression, but his eyes tell a story of their own, conveying sadness, kindness, exhaustion, and rage. Åkerlund utilizes those cheekbones to their utmost potential, and for that I commend him.
One of the major criticisms I’ve seen about Polar is its struggle with the male gaze, which is typical of many actions and even graphic novels; the female body is a piece of meat to be consumed. However, while many see Sindy, a younger assassin who is the main object of this gaze, as an objectified character who seems to only exists for gratuitous T’n’A shots, I would push against that and find power in Sindy’s sexuality. She is always in control of her sexuality (the one person who takes away that control quickly meets a violent end), it’s where she derives her power, and in 2019 who are we to deny her that power? The camera’s gaze is unmistakable, which seems more demeaning than empowering at times, but it is so over the top that it almost seems to mock the usual Bond girl or action hero side piece.
In contrast to the over sexualized Sindy is seemingly queer villain, Vivian (played by Katheryn Winnick), who brings a breath of fresh air to the representation of women in action films. Clad in fabulous outfits and poised with a cigarette at her lips, Vivian commands the screen with controlled viciousness, answering her phone with a single word, “Speak,” seizing control and power with just one word. Sadly her role is underutilized, with much of the screen time dedicated to the Black Kaiser. Between Sindy and Vivian, this is a film trying to work out how to portray an empowered woman and it is not always clear about its stance.
Polar is a rollercoaster of a film, mostly due to its extreme tonal shifts that make it feel like two movies slapped into one. The film’s oversaturation and comically stereotypical group of young hitmen bring a sense of comedy, slapstick, and fun to the film. But this fades away into something grittier, darker, and less beautifully comedic. Polar begins as a seeming satire of the action genre, but then falls into its typical tropes. This does not necessarily make it any less enjoyable, but it involves a rather large mental switch for the viewer in terms of what to expect in the film’s latter half.
Are there problems with Polar? Absolutely. Did that ruin my enjoyment and fun with this film? Absolutely not. Perhaps it’s not for everyone, but there’s no denying the enjoyment that you can get from a ridiculous, hilarious, and bonkers action movie that has you cheering whenever Mads Mikkelsen enters the frame.