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In Netflix's Polar, Mads Mikkelsen gets ultraviolent because he doesn't care about age

By Bryan Cairns
Polar, Mads Mikkelsen

Assassins must be immune to the bitter cold.

Last March, SYFY WIRE joined a couple other journalists in Toronto on the set of Netflix's uber-violent flick Polar, which premieres on January 25. Loosely based on Dark Horse Comics' series of the same name, Polar finds assassin Duncan Vizla, played by Hannibal's Mads Mikkelsen, entering retirement until his former employer marks him for termination. Now, Duncan must face a younger generation of ruthless killers determined to put him in the grave.

The scene we witnessed in the making — an epic showdown between Duncan and rival hitman Vivian (Katheryn Winnick) — doesn't unfold on some warm and toasty soundstage. Instead, production has settled in at the Hearn, a massive generating station located downtown Toronto. And the temperature is freezing, inside and out. However, it's business as usual for the cast and crew.

In the scene we witness, Vivian and her goons confront Duncan in this secluded, empty space. Duncan is obviously outnumbered... but not outgunned. After some terse dialogue between Duncan and Vivian, the bloodshed commences. Deafening popping sounds loud enough to require onlookers to wear earplugs for safety measures boom throughout the building. Duncan has erected high-powered machine guns and that thunderous noise represents a barrage of ammunition that will be added in later. By the time its all over, there's only one man standing amid a sea of corpses.

Between takes, Mikkelsen spoke to SYFY WIRE about adapting the Polar graphic novels for film, playing an anti-hero, what to expect in terms of action, and which genre the Danish actor still hopes to tackle.

Assassin movies are almost a subgenre of their own. What was the appeal of doing this project for you?

I love assassin films. There is something already film noir about that story. There's something essential, like life and death, and real men and real women, even though they can also be soft, and they can also be strong.

The graphic novel was obviously a great inspiration. The story, but most of all the images — which were using black and red and white — were extremely powerful. These graphic novels are almost like paintings. It comes to life in a special way when you look at these paintings. That's been a big inspiration for us in terms of the look, the feel, the smell of the film.

As an assassin, does Duncan have a code of ethics?

He's not a madman. He's not a psychopath. He doesn't get pleasure out of making other people suffer. He's not a sadist. He's a clean-cut guy.

But, if it serves a purpose, he will make people scream a lot in order to make the other 20 people out there hear it. But that's not because he likes people to suffer. It's just because it's a necessity.

Polar, Dark Horse

Your character in the graphic novel doesn't say a lot. Did you add some dialogue that wasn't in the comic?

He's the traditional character in the manner that he doesn't say a lot, but still says a lot. Do we have more dialogue? I guess in some scenes, and in other scenes, not so much.

Duncan, he does like answering with one-word sentences. It's not just the idea of the cliché. It's a man that is not super socially-skilled. He's not a nerd, but he has a hard time fitting in anywhere, even in this world. When he's on his own, doing his thing, he's free as a bird. The second he's with other people, even though they are in the same business, he feels really lost. For that reason, it's a natural thing to take some of this dialogue in one direction.

Your character says that when you turn 50, you get a little bit rusty. That's not the case for you.

That's one of the themes of the film, obviously. One of the themes is these guys go on pension when they are 50. He's a little grumpy about it. He's not the kind of guy who goes, "Oh, great. I'm done with my work. That was such a terrible job. Everything is haunting me." No, this is his life. He's not too pleased with that. Then, he gets a little girly about that. That is just a remark that is from the beginning of the film, I believe. "You can't have a hitman with Alzheimer's."

Has aging influenced your career in a way?

No, there will be limitations when you reach a certain number. I haven't met them yet. [Age is] a number and you can keep it at bay in different ways. You can embrace it... we all go that way, if we are lucky, or we go before that.

What's attracted you to these comic book adaptations? You did Doctor Strange and now this. What is it that you like about the comic book world?

Marvel is its own world. I grew up with Marvel and now they've had this enormous success with the Marvel films, and I was invited in. What's not to love about that?

Then, on the other hand, I am a big collector of graphic novels. I'm a huge fan of this universe. And it is a film; you open the books and they are films. They are images. There will be some dialogue, but it's not necessarily driving the action.

I think we have to remind ourselves that filmmaking is visual. For a good reason, we've fallen into a trap with a lot of films with a lot of dialogue. Films become sound. Originally, film was visual, which was what it was all about. The combination of those two things, I think, is wonderful to get inspired from the graphic novel and go back to some of those roots.

Does it make a difference for you that this is a Netflix film? Steven Spielberg controversially said Netflix movies shouldn't be considered as Oscar-worthy.

Why shouldn't they?

Hopefully, we will show him the opposite. The film world has changed. There is a lot of things you are not allowed to do anymore. Basically, you will be offending anyone, at any time in history, as we speak now when we do film. I think we bumped into that a little when we were writing the script and we just looked at each other and said, "Let's go. Let's go here. Free hands, just like we did in the '70s and '80s. Nobody is standing there with a PC sign constantly."

For us, it was a necessity to have free hands to make a story that we thought was interesting to watch, but not necessarily thinking always about who we would offend. That's not to say other film productions wouldn't have done that.

After Hannibal and Doctor Strange, do you enjoy playing the hero now?

Hannibal is a hero. I have always said it, and it will be a repetition of my answer before, but any bad guy will have something likable about them; any hero will have some faults that we recognize in ourselves. We have to be recognizable.

So, for me, it doesn't really matter whether it's one or the other, as long as they have both sides of the coin. And this guy, I guess he is the hero of the film, but he's definitely not a good man. Let's put it that way. If we are lucky, he does a couple of good things in the film, but he does quite a few bad things. So, it's depending on the eyes. In his universe, he's an OK guy, but his universe is not a healthy one.

What are we going to see in Polar, in terms of action, that we haven't seen before?

One of the things I have been really obsessed about is scrapping away all the computers and gadgets and chasing each other. We are trying to do this a little lost in time. We have a phone. We have a computer. We don't use them as a main source as a lot of films do today. We are not fascinated with that. So, that's back to the roots.

That goes for the action, as well. The action is back to the roots. It's not necessarily machines that can do crazier things than the other films. It's very brutal. The surprising thing is how the character does it, what means of tricking other people, scaring other people. That's maybe more of what we are doing here. This character has a way of trying to win half the battle before it starts by scaring the shit out of his opponents.

I would claim there is a very poetic side of the film. There is the mayhem world in which he lives, then there is another part of that world where he goes [for] more solitude, and he bumps into other people. One of the others he bumps into is a young, very awkward girl that seems lost in this place as well. If we have done it right, I'll put my money on that meeting [being] quite poetic in more of a father/daughter way than anything else.

So, we have that very silent kind of feel of the film, and then the mayhem side that we are definitely crossing our fingers will be a bridge between those worlds. So, it's not only action. I think we're in for something quite poetic as well.

You are ticking the boxes off with some of the major franchises out there. James Bond. Star Wars. Marvel. Is there anything else that you want to participate in?

Well, I've always wanted to be in a Bruce Lee film, but it's a little too late. Kung Fu, I grew up with that.

There are a lot of genres I love. Real horror films. I love them. I haven't done any of those. I'm a big fan of genre films, but I'm also a big fan of dramas. It's coming my way slowly and I am really pleased. Obviously, it would have been easier if I had bumped into a hitman job when I was 25. It seems to be quite trendy that they are older, and they are in retirement in other films.

It could be like a damaged Keanu Reeves.

I wouldn't know that. He doesn't look 50. He keeps looking 20 years old.

There a couple of other stories in this universe. I know you are just trying to finish the first one here, but would you like to explore more stories in this world?

I think there's obviously potential in the graphic novels, but also in the characters introduced in the novels and the ones we introduce here. I'm definitely curious where that could take us... if we survive this.

Polar premieres on Netflix on January 25.