A film review by Craig J. Koban May 31, 2021

RIDERS OF JUSTICE jjj
½ 

2021, Unrated, 116 mins.

Mads Mikkelsen as Markus  /  Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Otto  /  Lars Brygmann as Lennart  /  Nicolas Bro as Emmenthaler  /  Andrea Heick Gadeberg as Mathilde  /  Gustav Lindh as Bodashka  /  Roland Møller as Kurt  /  Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt as Sirius

Written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen

Anders Thomas Jensen's RIDERS OF JUSTICE is one stealthy movie.  It makes viewers think they're getting one type of obligatory and predictable genre picture, only to sneakily pull the rugs out from under our feet and give us something wholly different and unique.  

It tells a tale that seems like it's been regurgitated from countless other films - mentally scarred war hero returns home to a wife that's just recently been killed by nefarious means, leading him to seeking bloody vengeance on the perpetrators - but it takes that most barest of bare bone premise and sizably tweaks it in a refreshingly risky and potentially audience alienating fashion.  Not only is the end result a sensationally effective and unexpectedly hilarious Danish revenge thriller, but it's one that further emphasizes why star Mads Mikkelsen is a major talent of such unlimited range and appeal. 

The manner that Jensen manages to totally subvert our very expectations for these types of genre efforts is noteworthy.  It becomes so much more than a simplistic man driven to avenge his murdered wife tale.  The man driven to avenge his murdered wife in question is Markus (Mikkelsen), a Danish soldier that's renowned for his steely eyed bravery and unwavering commitment to his sworn duty, so much so that he has become semi-estranged from his wife and, more noticeably, daughter in Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg).  He has to inform his better half on the phone that his current tour is being extended by several months, which angers Mathilde to no end.  Tragedy soon strikes this troubled family when Mathilde and her mother are on board a Copenhagen commuter train that has exploded on route, killing countless innocent souls, Markus's wife included.  Mathilde miraculously survives, but with serious mental scarring. 

Most have written off the explosion has a horribly timed accident, but others are not quite so sure, like a scientist named Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), who was on board the train as well and noticed some highly odd activity surrounding a few men in particular that were also on board, but curiously left abruptly just before the blast (they also suspiciously threw out some highly pricey and uneaten sandwiches in the train's trash right before as well...hmmmmm).  Because Otto obsessively studies the nature of probability, he just can't bring himself to believe that what happened was the result of freak bad luck.  That, and he's also ravaged by horrible survival guilt: he gave his seat to Emma, who died instantly in the event.  Still, Otto can't bring himself to allow the offensively ineffective police to do nothing, so he starts digging deep into what happened, and in the process discovers that one of the men on the train was actually a key witness in an upcoming trial against a notorious biker gang in the city.  This surely can't be a coincidence. 

 

 

Markus, on the other hand, is too riddled with misery to buy into any notion that the accident that took his wife was anything but, which causes ample ripples in his relationship with his daughter back home as both try to acclimate to post-tragedy life.  Otto shows up at Markus' door one day to give his side of what he think happened and what he thinks led to it, but Markus seems initially unwilling to accept Otto's theories and just wants to get on with his life and with what's left of it with Mathilde.  But as evidence begins to seriously mount that foul play was afoot with this train explosion, Markus begins to warm over to Otto's studies and decides to join forces with him to find the culprits and take them down via any means necessary.  Otto also recruits a few colleagues to his cause in a hyper anxious Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and their insanely hot tempered, but brilliant computer wiz, Emmenthaler (Nikolas Bro).  This misfit trio becomes the brains of this comeuppance operation, whereas Markus becomes its blunt force instrument.  This team begins to covertly hunt down and eradicate the gang members one by one, and in the process learn much about each other and what drives them. 

One of the key and exemplary creative choices used in RIDERS OF JUSTICE to navigate around the relative staleness of a lone man driven by revenge arc is to pair him with an eclectic group of peculiar and deeply troubled in their own way brainiacs, which allows for them all to form a highly strange family dynamic altogether their own.  Again, there have been too many films to count about men like Markus (military trained, lacking in basic people skills, but a highly lethal force partaking in a solo, one-man army mission to take out his enemies), but to pair him with such an idiosyncratic group like Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler is kind of a masterstroke.  And these three men bare their own burdens as well and are not cut from the same clothe for these types of characters.  Markus has to pull triple duties here as a result: Not only is he driven to ruthlessly track and kill those that claimed his wife, but he also has to find a manner to become a new kind of nurturing father to his daughter while also trying to adjust to the other members of his team that drive him nuts, but whose participation is crucial to him getting the job done.  Adding on to the team dynamic complexity is a young man, Bodashka (Gustav Lindh), who was freed by Markus during a deadly altercation with one of the gang members that was holding him hostage.   

RIDERS OF JUSTICE doesn't seem too interested in the usual minutia that typically dominates these type of DEATH WISH inspired narratives, which is to its credit.  That's not to say that it's not horrifically violent and shies away from Markus' insatiable thirst to make his prey pay in nightmarish ways, but Jensen isn't slavishly preoccupied with sensationalism, carnage, or mayhem here.  More compellingly, the film takes an atypical approach in terms of honing in on character psychology and how the train bombing has affected multiple people from multiple walks of life differently.  Indeed, Markus does unleash himself on these gang members in a remorseless fashion, but the screenplay here is much more thoughtful in exploring not only his headspace, but those of his new allies dealing with grief and stress of different varieties.  In lesser films, all of these men would one note caricatures, but Jensen fully invests in all of them and fully develops their personalities, with Emmenthaler in particular being quite intriguing.  He looks and acts like a stereotypical IT hacker type - obese, slobby, anti-social, paranoid of everyone and everything around him - but he has deep seeded insecurities about his girth and a lot of rage trapped inside that he wants to unleash.  He also desperately wants Markus to train him in tactics and weapons.  Trust me when I say this, but his character journey doesn't go down a brow-beaten path at all. 

The stellar ensemble cast gathered here is probably better than most other cookie cutter revenge thrillers deserve, but all of them dive deep into their respective characters to help probe into their fleshed out insecurities, doubts, and fears (Otto, who spearheaded the entire mission, has layers of complexity that are subtly revealed as the film progresses; he's not a stereotypical nerdy man of science).  They also are all forced to embrace RIDER OF JUSTICE's highly tricky and potentially polarizing tonal balance and make it all flow together with relative ease.  The film is undeniably dark and blood-soaked, yes, but there's an uncommon amount of humor generated here simply by the odd-couple styled relationship of mutual need that fosters between Markus, Mathilde, and their newfound comrades in arms.  If RIDERS OF JUSTICE was too quirky it would have been insufferable, but too morose and it would have been unsatifyingly interchangeable with other dime-a-dozen genre examples.  What a rare thing it is to see a revenge thriller that's steeped in brutal violence and sweet natured sentiment and outlandish laughs.  It's a pretty remarkable highwire balancing act that Jensen and his crew maintain here, and mostly to flawless effect. 

And, in closing, just how crazy good is Mikkelsen here as well?  Watching movies like 2019's ARCTIC, last year's tremendous ANOTHER ROUND and now RIDERS OF JUSTICE and it's easy to become entranced with just how chameleon-like the Scandinavian star is when it comes to his character/film choices, and he seems unafraid of any acting challenge.  Markus starts off with broad strokes, but later on we see how nuanced Mikkelsen becomes in relaying the internalized fury and emotional vulnerability that this man wrestles with, making this anti-hero feel more relatable and authentic in the process.  He compliments the highly bizarre cocktail that is RIDERS OF JUSTICE, which blends in gut-wrenching pathos, absurd humor, and horrifying brutality in thanklessly equal measure to create a revenge story that's as wildly offbeat as they have come as of late, and one with substantially more depth than most.

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