Film Reviews

Polar: John Wick Made By Netflix Algorithm

Polar, a Netflix Original about a retired hitman forced to fight back when his old boss and co-workers come gunning for his pension, plays great as a trailer and certainly holds your attention for a good chunk of its running time before the novelty wears off. In the end, it seems to have been run through the streaming giant’s proprietary algorithm and fine-tuned to combine as many recognizable story elements as possible while also going much further with it than anyone would rightly expect. If there’s a line something like John Wick or Eastern Promises won’t go past, Polar jumps over it with coked-out abandon.

John Wick’s so mad because they killed his dog? Whatever. Our assassin played by Mads “Hannibal” Mikkelsen actually kills his own dog on accident (translation: quick trigger finger) after having a PTSD nightmare! And you know what? He’s totally cool with it. Buries the dog with no fuss.

Remember how violent Gareth Evans made everything in The Raid 2: Redemption? Well, just wait until you see Mikkelsen get a hold of a nail gun.

Is everyone still talking about Viggo Mortensen going full frontal in Eastern Promises’ epic knight fight in that Turkish Bathhouse? Really? Whatever. Our assassin rolls around completely naked in a log cabin and takes down a team of assassins attacking him from all angles. But, wait, there’s more – the also totally nude woman he was just having aggressive sex with is secretly one of the bad guys. So, he has to fight her off too.

The filmmakers might choose to call it Polar, but the algorithm has a different name: GCTC, or Guaranteed to Cut Through the Clutter.

That’s probably why a minute into Polar, it feels like you’re watching a rap video, with an aerial camera shot overlooking an oceanside palace before quickly zeroing in on a poolside couple. We gawk at Ruby O. Fee’s every scantily-clad body part as she attempts to entice a coked-out-of-his-mind Johnny Knoxville into sex. Three minutes later, Knoxville has bullet holes in his head and chest as the result of a startling outburst of violence. A stylish, multi-ethnic group of assassins, including Fee, who turns out to have been the honeypot in this scenario, dance over his body like they’re live-action Fortnite players.

It’s an instant jolt of energy as if an entire film just took a giant hit of Nicolas Cage’s LSD from Mandy. It’s less movie, more music video because…

Oh, shit, this is one of those all-style, no-substance first features from a former music video director, isn’t it?

Actually, not quite. Though most known for music videos like Madonna’s “Ray of Light” and more recent efforts from Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Kesha, and U2, Polar director Jonas Åkerlund has made several feature films, running in tone from black comedy (2012’s Small Apartments) to thriller (last year’s Lords of Chaos). So, he’s not exactly a newcomer still figuring how to properly balance visuals, style, and story.

The reason you might think otherwise is that Polar is based on a dialogue-free webcomic series (Polar: Came from the Cold, pictured above) which was drawn in just three colors – black, white, and orange-red. The challenge of giving the story actual dialogue and bringing more color to the stylized imagery proved too tempting for Åkerlund to pass up, with the assistance of Jayson Rothwell’s script which injects quite a bit of black comedy into the noir.

However, there’s something perfectly poetic about that: A story so basic it needed no dialogue. A music video director who happily says things like “I have about 4 billion hits on my music videos on YouTube, and I’m really proud of that. That’s what it’s all about for me as a director” in interviews. And the Netflix algorithm making sure everyone talked about the movie for at least a week, although everyone seems to have already moved on and forgotten about it.

The result: You probably won’t care about Mikkelson’s quest to save his meek neighbor (Vanessa Hudgens), but you’ll definitely remember the part where he does the “I once caught a fish this big” trick from Dave but with robot arms capable of mowing down an entire warehouse of assassins. In the end, this is an all-style, no-substance graphic novel brought to life, glorious to look at, often a wonder to behold, but shallow and forgettable even with all of its extremes.

One last thing…

The black comedy and elevated reality of Polar exemplified: Hudgen convinces the well-traveled Mikkelsen to pitch in at the local school, not knowing he used to kill people. So, of course, he teaches the students the best ways to kill people using his real, very sharp knives, and they all applaud in joy with nary a peep from any of the onlooking adults.

No, I’m done this time, I swear…

Most. Depressing. Richard. Dreyfuss. Cameo. Ever!

Now I stop and you comment to agree or disagree. You’ve read reviews before. You know how this works. Get to it below!

8 comments

  1. This shoukd have been a better film. It has a slick quality to it and the violence of popular films like john wick. But johnny knocksville is wasted in it and matt lucas is miscast as the big bad. Also that female character you mention in your review doesnt fit with todays me2 campaign. I mean who would likely act like that. She doesnt kill anyone just gets off on others killing and bares all for the male audience enjoyment. Not complaining personally but it does cheapen the film. As for Mads he is good in the role but sure does waste a lot of sim cards. How does he get that mamy and keep them all live? Dont they shut off if not used in a long time?

    1. That is a good point about the sim cards.

      Agreed about Matt Lucas being miscast. I found him so annoying I didn’t even want to talk about him in the review.

      I think Johnny Knoxville is simply in this as a cameo because he’s in one of the director’s prior films. It is strange, though. Around the time you’re thinking “Johnny Knoxville is in this! Why didn’t I know that? Why isn’t that in the trailer?” he ups and dies on you, making you realize, “Oh, that’s why he’s not in the trailer.”

      The female character is definitely a product of the male gaze. Her prolonged sex with Mads just kept going and going and left so little to the imagination.

  2. I saw the trailer for this a couple of weeks before it came out and it very much intrigued me. Once i finished watching it though, I kind of felt like it was just a set up to another film featuring a Mikkelsen and Hudgens team up teacher/student sequel. I liked the movie when I watched it, but like you mentioned, it was quickly forgotten once the credits rolled and I moved on to something else.

    1. And I guess that’s kind of the lowered bar for Netflix Originals. If it passably distracts you for a couple of hours, that’s all it needs todo.

      I do agree, btw, that the whole thing feels like a set-up for a Mikkelsen/Hudgens team-up.

  3. Man, you weren’t kidding. It feels like it was written by a computer. What a disjointed mess. It’s almost like Mikkelsen and Hudgens are in a different movie than everyone else in the movie. All the other characters and writing are just so confusingly bad. I don’t know how this could come from the same guy that did Lords of Chaos.

    1. Agreed about Mikkelsen and Hudgens. It’s not even that they lead quieter, more domesticated lives – it’s also the way it’s filmed. It literally looks like a completely different movie.

      I know there are computer programs out there which literally can write scripts – incoherent, jumbled messes, but scripts nonethless. And I know that more and more showrunners are talking about how Netflix gives them notes based on what their algorithym and stats tell them. Maniac, for example, altered several story choices based on Netflix telling them that if they didn’t do so their algorithm predicted X amount of viewers would stop watching after episode 3.

      Polar feels like an uholy love child of those two trends. I know it literally isn’t, but it feels like it is.

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