Assassins on screen are action heroes or anti-heroes who get paid. That makes them glamorous. Villanelle on Killing Eve performs acts of shocking daring and violence, and then uses her substantial fee to buy even more shockingly expensive clothes. James Bond, with his license to kill, can expense fancy tailoring and trips to exotic locales. Assassins are rich, slick, and enviable. Pro-bono heroes like Daredevil and Spider-Man can only imagine such elegance.
But the fact that assassins get paid also means that they’re workers. They’re not free; someone tells them what to do.
The new Netflix film Polar, directed by Jonas Åkerlund, takes that insight as a mission statement. The film is an assassin story about labor exploitation and how you need to murder your bosses before they murder you.
The plot of Polar centers on Duncan Vizla (Mads Mikkelsen), an assassin pushing 50, the mandatory age of retirement from his company. When Duncan tries to get out of the game, his own employers put a contract on his head.
Thus far, there’s nothing especially revelatory here. The retiring hit man targeted for death is almost an assassin subgenre in itself. John Wick is about a guy accidentally attacked by clueless members of the mob he used to work for. (Polar even throws in a tasteless Wick-referencing dead dog joke.) Looper is a twisty time travel story where hired guns are paid substantial sums to shoot their future selves, cleaning up any final loose ends related to their dirty deeds.
Polar is different, though. Duncan isn’t targeted at random, or because his bosses are afraid he’ll leak information. He’s targeted as a matter of corporate financial strategy.
Company assassins in Polar have a retirement policy with the corporation, which matches their contributions. Upon his retirement, Duncan will get an $8 million payday. But if Duncan dies before his 50th birthday, the money goes back to the corporation. Duncan’s tittering boss, Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas) is trying to sell the company to some other assassin conglomerate and they won’t buy unless his balance sheet looks better. The easiest way to clean up his financial liabilities is to simply murder his way through his old agents and add their pensions to his income.
The brilliance of Polar is it’s realism. Corporations regularly work to steal back pension benefits from their workers. My father-in-law, who worked in a steel mill for 10 years, was promised retirement benefits, which the company defaulted on when it closed. More recently, the Sears closure threatens to result in one of the biggest pension defaults in history. Illinois has failed to fund state pension benefits for decades and as a result it’s almost certain that many current teachers and government workers won’t ever receive the benefits they’ve been promised. The Republican Party continues to circle around social security like vultures hoping that if they give enough money to the wealthy with tax cuts they can find an excuse to gut the program.
In Polar, one of Duncan’s colleagues retires to a life of coke and sex and excess. Duncan just gets a little cabin and looks forward to not having to shoot people anymore. Like them, most of us hope that someday we can stop working and scrambling to pay the bills. And for most of us, that hope seems more and more like an illusion. You give hours and hours of your life to the wealthy to make them more wealthy; in return they say they’ll take care of you in your old age. But instead, they put a bullet in you. That’s not fiction: it’s the way the world works.
Polar doesn’t fully understand what a great idea it’s stumbled into. Rather than digging methodically into its labor themes, it gets distracted by pointless Guy Ritchie-esque stylistic flourishes, a predictably tragic/heartwarming twist ending, and a lot of T&A.
But even with those detours, the film manages to hit its capitalist target with some frequency. Lucas’ portrayal of Blut as a leering, callow, incompetent is particularly on the mark. The man with all the money isn’t some sort of criminal genius or a slick captain of finance. He’s just a jerk who has managed to enrich himself by systematically screwing over people who trust and depend on him.
The portrait of the team of young assassins who goes after Duncan is also telling. They’re preening bumblers with limited imagination and foresight. But awful as they are, they’re also victims, sent on a predictably disastrous mission by a guy who will have no compunction about also murdering them for their pensions in a couple of decades. As a middle-manager tells them, they’re all “disposable” — even the assassin sleeping with the boss.
Not all of the company’s hires are quite so clueless. Faced with certain death, many of them do the logical thing and engage in a work stoppage. After Duncan has murdered his way through a big part of the company’s staff, the remaining muscle decides to throw their crappy boss to the wolf. They drop their weapons and head for the exits, muttering “excuse me” to Duncan as they leave and pointing him to the office where Blut is holed up.
Salaried minions in assassin films are always unaccountably tossing their lives away under the command of some rich dope. It’s very satisfying to see the low level grunts finally say, “Hey, wait a minute. Why should we help this guy steal our coworker’s pension?” That’s solidarity.
The best part about Polar, isn’t any one scene but the way it pulls the assassin genre’s covert class war out of its hiding place in the shadows, and shines a lurid spotlight on it. Someone hands assassin’s money in exchange for their services. That means that, for all their awesome skills and designer outfits, they’re still, like the rest of us, working slobs at someone else’s beck and call.
Assassin stories are in one way or another about the fact that no matter how good you are at your job, you’re still under the thumb of some asshole. The people with the skills and the determination take all the risks and do all the work, and then someone else slides in to appropriate the money and the glory. Villanelle’s boss ships her off to prison. John Wick’s boss tries to set him impossible tasks so he doesn’t have to dispense with his services. In Looper the boss literally demands that the hired hands kill themselves. Assassins, Polar realizes, are workers who are treated like crap. So are we.