RIDERS OF JUSTICE 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 SiriusWritten 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,
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.
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.