Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
The hitman film is practically a genre unto itself. Within that, by far the most common trope is the story of the assassin being hunted down after that one, final job (that usually goes awry) before calling it quits. Very few break the mold, but that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker: like I always say, it really comes down to how it’s done anyway. Netflix’s latest feature release, Polar, is based on the graphic novel series by Spanish writer Victor Santos, directed by Swedish helmer Jonas Åkerlund, starring Danish thesp Mads Mikkelsen (Doctor Strange), and filmed in Canada. How’s that for international relations? The film doesn’t stray too far from the established formula, but does accentuate, embellish, and garnish with enough spectacle and heart to elevate it above the standard fare.
If I had to equate the film, I might say it’s Old Man Logan meets John Wick. The basic premise finds elite assassin Duncan Vizla (Mikkelsen), aka the Black Kaiser, facing mandatory retirement from his employers, the Damocles Agency. CEO Mr. Blut (Doctor Who’s Matt Lucas) decides to save on having to payout his pension by “retiring” Vizla first, setting off a flood of murder, torture, and mayhem—basically everything you want in a hitman action movie. Add to that the requisite B-story of Vizla’s budding parental relationship with a broken young woman, Camille (Vanessa Hudgens), and you’ve got plenty of depth to both the story and characters. And sure, that might all sound like just another go round the usual maypole, but Åkerlund does a quite masterful job of somehow balancing the chaotic, almost cartoonish world of the assassins with the quiet, contemplative world of Vizla’s sanctuary. It really has no business working as well as it does, and yet somehow it all comes together.
A huge part of that achievement is Mikkelsen himself. He’s got the look and the pedigree to pull off the stoic intelligence underlying the cold-hearted brutality of a killer. I’ve always been a fan, but his work on Hannibal absolutely blew me away, and so I’ll generally check out anything he does now. Mikkelsen is somehow able to jump between the calm and crazy worlds, which makes it safe and comfortable for the audience to do so as well. Whether having a poignant conversation with Camille or blowing out the back of eight henchmen’s skulls, ole Mads makes the journey both engaging and believable.
An equally soulful performance comes from Vanessa Hudgens, really stretching herself as the emotional heart of the story. Layering herself both literally and figuratively in her own reclusiveness, she exudes the intricate damage of someone still very much dealing with the trauma of her past. Yet, it never feels too overdrawn, and her slowly built relationship with Vizla seems fairly natural, including her reactions to some of his more unusual, anti-social aspects. While she comes and goes throughout the piece, she also becomes the lynchpin that holds it all together.
That connection is vital considering that when we do flip over to the world of Damocles, it’s so batshit that if not for a delicate balance it could easily spin off into dismissible absurdity. That tone is set from the beginning through a wild cameo by Johnny Knoxville, and I’m pretty sure that’s enough said right there. The violence is extreme, so much so that it does become somewhat caricatured. Staying just shy of farcical as to remain grounded, it still goes for the gusto in much the same way as John Wick, making the violence almost balletic. While it doesn’t quite have Wick’s polish, it offers a good imitation, and some of the action is truly amazing to behold.
Åkerlund’s heavy background in music videos (having shot everyone from Kesha to Metallica) is evident in the extreme color palettes, kinetic editing, and skillful shot composition, giving the film a sumptuous visual appeal. He knows when to push the envelope, but even more importantly, when not to. Vizla’s world is fairly monochromatic and subdued, but never dour. There’s a constant underlying current of energy that buzzes throughout the film, helping keep the tone in place. There are occasionally a few jolts in the line, like having the cloistered Vizla lead show and tell at an elementary school, but even then, the scenes are so much fun they are easily forgiven.
And speaking of fun, it’s clear everyone here is having a blast. Lucas is known almost exclusively as a comedian, and while he brings a lot of humor to Mr. Blut, you can tell he’s having fun pushing the limits toward heavy-handed villainy. The youthful group of assassins on Vizla’s trail may be there primarily for cannon fodder, but they make the best of their time, including impressive turns from newcomers Fei Ren and Ruby O. Fee. Even the legendary Richard Dreyfuss dips his toe in for a goofy cameo that we can only hope is extended should a sequel move forward.
But my personal favorite is Katheryn Winnick as perhaps the sole level-headed killer in the Damocles stable. Having absolutely fallen in love with her work as the fierce shield-maiden-turned-queen Lagertha on Vikings, it’s fun to see her stretch a bit while still maintaining that sense of authority. As Vivian, she is the poor soul caught in the middle of the war, yet still must lay in the bed she makes for herself. It’s a great role, with her straddling both worlds in much the same way Mikkelsen does and serving as a bridge for the audience.
Polar may, pun intended, divide viewers either because of its adherence to conventional tropes or because of its ability to use and expand on them. For my money, it’s the latter. Any film that is able to balance action and drama while being endlessly entertaining is a win in my book. Polar is a clever twist on the genre and presented in an exciting and skillful way with a pitch-perfect cast. It may not set the world on fire, but if you’re looking to add some heat to your daily drudge, give Polar a shot.
YANG: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Every year there’s that little film that racks up a ton of award wins and nominations, and yet the majority of the general public will never have heard of it. Can You Ever Forgive Me? might just be this year’s. With a current standing (as of this writing) of 36 wins and 83 nominations, the little film is making mighty waves, mostly due to the head-turning performances of its two leads, Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant. Grant is no stranger to being a critical darling, and is no less deserving this time round. But McCarthy, primarily known for her poop jokes and potty mouth, might surprise people. The mouth is still there, but the gut-wrenching performance proves she’s able to stand tall amongst her thespian peers.
The film is based on the real-life memoir of writer Lee Israel (McCarthy), a biographer of moderate success finding herself on the outs in early 90’s New York City. With a salty attitude and a preference for felines over people, she’s alienated most of those closest to her, including her agent and her ex-girlfriend. Somewhat by happenstance, she begins to parley her skills as a writer capable of capturing the souls of her subjects into pawning off counterfeit personal letters from famous celebrities (there’s apparently a big market for that). Sure, the money starts rolling in at first, but as you can guess, things don’t end well. Along the way, she befriends Jack Hock (Grant), her equal in amorality and alcoholism, and the two become, quite literally, thick as thieves.
Helmed by actor/director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl), the film highlights a side of New York life often ignored: the struggle of the middle-class shlubs just trying to make their way. There are certainly calls for parallels, or at least homages, to Withnail & I (another Grant film), with its drinking buddies getting into mischief and Grant’s lyrical expositions on life. But the film is far more grounded, with a subdued, earthy palette that embeds you in the grime and makes the characters all the richer for finding their home within it.
While there’s a clear plot driving the story forward, this is by and large a character piece. Both Israel and Hock are reasonably distasteful human beings, and it’s a credit to McCarthy and Grant’s performances that we’re eager to continue the journey with them despite that. While we might never befriend these sorts ourselves, we can certainly relate to the fact that two ostracized individuals find comfort in each other. Hock’s gregarious charm is the yang to Israel’s introverted, misanthropic yin. They are complete opposites, and yet somehow completely complement each other. While tension between them becomes inevitable, we still find ourselves rooting for them, as they are so honest in their natures—practically unapologetic—that they become somewhat heroic despite their misdeeds.
McCarthy can be a hilarious comedian; and they say that behind every comedian is a dramatic actor. Her turn here seems to be a case study for that fact, as McCarthy uses the same in-your-face, foul-mouthed persona she’s built her career on and strips it down to its bare essence. There are still a few genuinely funny moments, and it never gets so dark as to become depressing. But McCarthy plays Israel relatively straightforward, a woman giving the finger to a world she can’t stand. And there’s that relatability—of the little person rising up to take control, even if by unethical means. It’s clear why McCarthy has been getting the nods, and like many a comedian before her, we’ll likely see her bouncing between genres for years to come.
Grant, however, is perfectly in his wheelhouse. He’s made career out of this sort of lovable yet nefarious character. Here he’s able to play a gay, alcoholic, downtrodden, grifting scamp who seems perfectly happy to let the tides take him where they may, yet truly does care for those closest to him. His chemistry with McCarthy is palpable, as the pair trade barbs and shots in classic drinking-buddy fashion. His charm isn’t just window-dressing, it’s vital to the story. He pulls down Israel’s walls, exposing her vulnerability; and his dependence on her acceptance leads to his own deference.
It’s the pair that makes the film work—their complimenting opposition drives the emotional core. Without that element, it’d be an interesting anecdote lacking any sort of real depth. But Heller manages to weave it all together into a poignant narrative that pulls you in til the end. A lot of films in this position skew a bit too far into the darker aspects, choosing to reward only the furthest extremes of pathos, so it’s nice to a film a bit more balanced yet standing firm amongst the congregation.
Give a look and see if you agree, you just find yourself rooting for it come Oscar night.