Released: 25th January
Seen: 22nd February
On the 1st of February in 1982, the television sketch comedy series Not the Nine O’clock News aired an episode that contained a song called “Nice Video, Shame about the Song”. The song was a satire of the recently created MTV and in particular the music videos that had begun littering it with insanely strange yet interesting imagery that accompanied substandard songs. This was the era when all you needed to make it in the music industry was a confusing “artistic” music video that ran through every new tool that was made available at the time. The Not the Nine O’clock News team satirized this by making the most garishly elaborate video they possibly could, complete with images of comical satanic rituals and Elizabethan dress-up, all set to a song that was intentionally designed to be confusingly bad. It’s one of the most gloriously pointed critiques of the music video genre and the phrase “Nice video, shame about the song” became a bit of a personal shorthand for films that worry so much about looking cool that they don’t bother thinking about things like plot, character or dialogue. Films like Avatar or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are films that I would put into this category… and now, we can throw Polar into that very specific group of films
Polar, based on the web comic of the same name, follows hitman Duncan Vizla (Mads Mikkelsen) who is just 2 weeks from retirement, which means he will get a pension of $8million dollars. However, that pension would be given to the company he worked for should something happen to him so his boss, Mr Blut (Matt Lucas) puts out a hit on Duncan in order to collect the man’s pension which can be used to pay off on Mr Blut’s debts. Not only must Duncan now deal with an army of Mr Blut’s assassins coming after him, but past events from Duncan’s life as a hitman are starting to haunt him and may be an even bigger problem for his safety than Mr Blut could ever be.
The story for this film is basically John Wick, down to bringing in a dog to create a bond with the main character before the dog is killed by Duncan in a moment of what I want to assume is pitch black comedy, except the joke doesn’t land. Partially this is because the part of the film that features Duncan is meant to feel more realistic, at least that’s what the visual style is trying to imply in his scenes. Those moments of film where we’re stuck with Duncan feel muted, some of the colour is drained from the image so that it’s got more realistic feeling, along with a lot of more handheld shots so we can identify with this character… that, again, shoots his dog. By having this realistic feeling to his scenes and then having a comical moment of canine murder, it’s a jarring feeling that means the joke of his reaction to realising what he did doesn’t work. The other reason this joke doesn’t work BTW is because he shoots a tiny dog because it’s shocking and this film needs to do something, ANYTHING, to impact the audience since it doesn’t think it can do that based on the story it’s telling.
Running back to the visuals, they really are going for something that could possibly be interesting. Duncan’s retiring and basically not doing anything for most of the film so his colour scheme is muted, the shots with him have a gritty feeling and the camera is a little shaky. Meanwhile the scenes with the hitman squad running around down are brightly coloured with flashy editing, the saturation turned up to the extreme and everything is over the top and bordering on a cartoon. This has the potential to work, a contrast in visual styles could’ve really made for some excitement when the dull muted life of Duncan is invaded by the flashy bright colourful world of the hitmen sent to kill him… but it’s never exciting. It’s never visually interesting because the moment the two worlds meet they end up settling for “Keep everything muted but hope that the bright outfits the bad guys wear still carries the same effect” and it really doesn’t. There are moments early on in the film that are actually visually irritating; I could do without the awful font choice flashing character names up with hyper stylised edits that feel like the film is trying to be cool when there isn’t any cool. On top of all this, when the wildly contrasting visual styles meet right near the end, it fizzles out and misses its chance to create something interesting.
The brisk editing and elaborate visual tricks are there to give the illusion that there’s something interesting going on, that something exciting is happening and you should be impressed but it’s just not there like it should be. It’s a shame because Mads Mikkelson is a fantastic actor and his character has a lot of potential, there is even one scene in a hallway that’s actually kind of cool (what is it with Netflix and putting exciting scenes in a hallway?) but for the most part it’s just a slog. It’s desperately trying to have the same impact as John Wick, perhaps be a slightly more cartoonish version of it and rake in some attention since everyone is infatuated with the Keanu Reeves hitman movie… but it just never works quite right for this film.
Polar tries so hard to be interesting and exciting, it wants nothing more than to entertain the audience with a garish shocking experience that it hoped would be fun and I’m sure for some people it is, but watching it felt like a chore. It’s a film that has ideas on how to be exciting but never executes them well. It tries to be thrilling but never quite gets there. It tries to be original and is really just a cartoon John Wick. I’d say just go watch John Wick. This movie isn’t awful by any means, I’ve seen much worse, but it’s not good and it should at least have been that.