Dark Horse Comics goes Hollywood again, this time with its acclaimed graphic novel Polar. Assassin Duncan Vizla (Mads Mikkelsen) is on the verge of retirement and wants nothing more than to let the life go. A representative of his company, however, the sultry Vivian (Katheryn Winnick) coaxes him into one last job. Naturally, she and her corpulent, eccentric employer Blut (Matt Lucas) have an ulterior motive. To save money, their policy is to kill their hitmen once they reach the age of 50 — and guess who turns the big five-oh?
Polar is based on a work by Victor Santos originally published as a webcomic in 2012, and it takes its story from the source material. A sequel to 2009’s Black Kaiser, also by Santos, it was action-heavy with almost no dialogue and a limited color palette. Obviously, that wouldn’t exactly work for a cinematic experience that needs a strong story and central character. Though some films fly against that prevailing wind of American movies, Dark Horse wants to trek a familiar trail blazed by John Wick, Deadpool, and Suicide Squad, while staying true to the comic.
Directed by Jonas Akerlund (a Swedish filmmaker known mostly for his edgy music videos and working with today’s most popular artists), a strong visual style is breathed into Polar. Again, the graphic novel used only the colors black, white, and orange. Akerlund doesn’t stick strictly to that scheme, he tends toward a baroque, shadowy world bathed in bright colors, but he does pay homage to it in a few shots. Blut’s lair and its orange silhouette are the biggest ones.
Akerlund gives each setting its own identity: Montana is cold, drab, and full of bumpkins; nightclubs, hotels, and mansions are ornately colorful or estate-like. Heavy metal really meets House & Garden in this globe-hopping affair. For real, practically every scene is set on a different continent and feels like it — even if filming probably stayed in Canada.
Going back to the story and main character, Mads Mikkelsen really is the glue of this film and he sucks you in. His character, Duncan Vizla, is known in the comics as Kaiser Black and they tip a hat to that, as well as Santos’s initial graphic novel, by giving him the cool hitman’s nickname of “The Black Kaiser.” In addition, they try to reflect the comic’s structure and tone by making him a man of few words.
But Duncan is someone whose actions speak louder. He does a lot of mass killing and fighting his way out of impossible situations, but, though resourceful, he’s no Mary Sue. He has vulnerabilities — namely the reclusive girl coping with PTSD (Vanessa Hudgens) he takes in — and takes as much as he gives when the third act rolls around. In spite of it all, he does everything to put his misdeeds behind him when his old associates won’t let him.
Seen It Before
Sound familiar? It should, it’s the same kind of thing, in form and content, you saw in the John Wick series (maybe bloodier) and Deadpool (but more humorless). Lighting and cinematography are much the same, and so is the body count. Akerlund does some things to help differentiate it and keep some of the look and feel close to the comics, such as quick-cut flashback montages that rely on imagery. If only Suicide Squad hadn’t done something similar, right?
Dark Horse was king decades ago; for a while, they could do no wrong and were something of a standard when it came to comics becoming movies. The Mask was based on a twisted little mini-series from DH and turned into a huge blockbuster. One of the highest-grossing comic adaptations at the time, it catapulted the career of Jim Carrey and set the precedent for the CG affairs we get from Marvel/Disney and DC/Warner these days. Then there was the minor success of Timecop, spawning a sequel and a brief TV spinoff.
At present, they are a little like Warner chasing Marvel’s Cinematic Universe with their own via DC characters. Dark Horse is behind the curve and trying to recapture some of that old magic. But, the comic and film industries aren’t the same as they were in the mid-90s and, by now, everything imaginable has been done.
You could do worse but it doesn’t have to be your first choice for bloody violence or action on movie night.
- Mads Mikkelsen, he is stoically good in a role fit for Liam Neeson.
- The supporting cast is full of surprises. Somebody convinced Richard Dreyfuss to be in this thing.
- Vanessa Hudgens proves again she is more than musicals.
- The violence is way over the top and could've been toned down.
- Main villain, Blut, is outrageous and brutal but such a cartoon caricature of other, better bad guys. He looks so inept and feckless, you know he's screwed the moment you meet him.