Riders of Justice
Mads Mikkelsen proves as magnetic and exceptional as ever in this bold, entertaining and thoughtful Danish revenge-driven comedy.
September 30, 2021
Few things will ever be better than seeing Mads Mikkelsen get day drunk and dance around while swigging champagne in an Oscar-winning movie, which is one fantastic film experience that 2021 has already delivered. But the always-watchable actor is equally magnetic and exceptional in Riders of Justice, a revenge-driven comedy that's all about tackling your problems in a different and far less boozy fashion. In both features, he plays the type of man unlikely to express his feelings. Instead of Another Round's mild-mannered teacher who's so comfortably settled into his adult life that his family barely acknowledges he's there, here he's a dedicated solider who's more often away than home. Beneath his close-cropped hair and steely, bristly beard, he's stern, sullen and stoic, not to mention hot-tempered when he does betray what's bubbling inside, and he outwardly expects the same of everyone around him. Mikkelson excels at transformational performances, however. He's also an exquisite anchor in films that dare to take risks. The aforementioned Another Round and Riders of Justice make a great double on his resume, in fact, and they're both bold and glorious in their own ways.
In, Riders of Justice, Mikkelson's Markus isn't just the strong, silent type from the feature's first frame to its last. No matter what part he's playing, the Danish star is gifted at conveying subtlety, which is ideal for Markus' slow realisation that he needs to be more open with his emotions. And, while Mikkelson is usually expertly cast in most entries on his resume — the misfire that is Chaos Walking being one rare exception — he's especially in his element in this genre-defying, trope-unpacking, constantly complex and unpredictable film. With a name that sounds like one of the many by-the-numbers action flicks Liam Neeson has starred in since Taken, Riders of Justice initially appears as if it'll take its no-nonsense central figure to an obvious place, and yet this ambitious, astute and entertaining movie both does and doesn't.
After a train explosion taints his life with tragedy and leaves him the sole parent to traumatised teenager Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg, Pagten), Markus returns home from Afghanistan. Talking is her method of coping, or would be if he'd let her; he refuses counselling for them both, and opts not to discuss the incident in general, because clamming up has always been his PTSD-afflicted modus operandi. Then statistician Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, The Keeper of Lost Causes), his colleague Lennart (Lars Brygmann, The Professor and the Madman) and the computer-savvy Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro, The Kingdom) arrive at the grieving family's door. They're a trio of stereotypically studious outsiders to his stony-faced military man, but they come uttering a theory. Mathematically, they don't think that the events surrounding the accident add up, so they're convinced it wasn't just a case of pure misfortune — because it's just so unlikely to have occurred otherwise. The nervy Otto, who was on the train with Mathilde and her mother Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind, The Protector), has even started to narrow down possible culprits with his pals. Markus, with his action-not-words mindset, is swiftly eager for retribution, but again, this isn't like most films of its ilk.
Writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen (Men & Chicken) and screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) do take the movie to its blatant next destination, yet never in the routine and formulaic sense. Narratives about seeking justice often ride the expected rails on autopilot, getting from start to finish on the standard vengeance template's inherent momentum; this one questions and subverts every usual cliche, convention and motif along the way. Its chief tactic: putting characters first. Jensen and Arcel don't just twist and turn a recognisable setup for the sake of it, but ground every change and choice in the personalities and backstories of their protagonists. Accordingly, Markus isn't just taciturn because that's the kind of figure that always stalks around reprisal-centric flicks, Otto and Lennart aren't merely booksmart geeky sidekicks eager for attention, and Emmenthaler is keenly aware of how the world sees him, not only because of his fondness for technology but also due to his weight. Riders of Justice doesn't add flesh to its characters to neatly explain away their decisions, either, diving into the myriad of factors that push and pull people in various directions without them even knowing it. The term 'emotional intelligence' might be so overused in self-help speak that it now feels largely meaningless, but it genuinely applies to this attentive and layered film.
With calm and control, Jensen and Arcel also take a darkly comedic approach to Riders of Justice's storyline, as plenty goes wrong on their retaliatory quest. While that's where the movie's anarchic plot developments come in, and its witty dialogue as well, the film never jeopardises its investment in its characters' depth. In one case in point, the four men decide to hide their plans from Mathilde. Needing a cover, Otto and his friends claim to be counsellors dispatched to help after all. "I've had over 4000 hours of therapy," exclaims Lennart, who is quick to both embrace the ruse and spit out the appropriate terminology — and this scenario not only speaks volumes about him, but leads the feature to keep unpacking what that means. Indeed, this is a picture with a thoughtful and tender core, particularly when it comes to men facing their troubles. It's also shrewdly aware that that's what its chosen genre is always about amidst the overblown violence, and purposefully opts for a different alternative.
Action, thrills and confrontations still lurk in Riders of Justice, of course. Blood and brutality do as well, as does a definite body count. But, although convincingly shot and staged, these scenes are never the picture's reason for being, or its point. Riders of Justice packages hilarity with its payback, understanding and empathy with its bullet-riddled affrays, and morality and ethics with its showdowns. It's set at the end of the year, too, so it also counts as a screwball Christmas movie — and it uses the visual references that come with that merry period to underscore its musings on togetherness, redemption, and valuing what really matters most. Another movie it'd make a stellar double with: the Nicolas Cage-starring Pig, because this year has been great for star-led revenge crusades that delight, surprise and ruminate on much, much more than getting even.