Although he’s made his living primarily as a writer, Danish filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen has made a handful of really bizarre and mind-bending films (The Green Butchers, Adam’s Apple, Men & Chicken) that attract the finest actors that Denmark has to offer, including several featured in his latest work, Riders of Justice, which he wrote and directed. The film centers on Danish military officer Markus (the supreme Mads Mikkelsen), who must interrupt his deployment to take care of his teenage daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), after his wife is killed in a freak train accident, an incident that sets off a series of unforeseen events.
As much as the film deals with the grieving husband and daughter, what a big part of the story centers on is that Markus has no idea how to raise his daughter, and the two find it incredibly hard to connect or even find common ground upon which to build a relationship. To make matters worse, Mathilde partly blames herself for her mother being on the train in the first place, since her being there stems from the girl’s bike being stolen earlier that day. To make the tragedy all the more confusing and stressful, a fellow passenger on the train named Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), who has an obsession with statistics and probability, reaches out to Markus to let him know that the crash wasn’t an accident and that it was actually designed to kill a single person who was set to testify against a criminal biker gang called the Riders of Justice and who happened to be on the same train. Otto is also fueled by guilt since he gave up his seat to Markus’ wife, which led to her dying in the accident and him surviving.
With this information, Markus now has a mission, one rooted in revenge and his skills as a patient investigator. Otto asks to be a part of the planning and brings along his equally eccentric friends—a hacker named Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and the temperamental programmer Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), all of whom set out to find the evidence needed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this gang planned the train wreck. But what sets this film apart from your standard-issue Liam Neeson revenge flick is the relationships. As these emotionally damaged people (including Mathilde, who is told the men’s regular meetings is a group therapy experiment) get to know each other, we learn about their pasts and what made them the way they are, from trauma, grief, flawed definitions of masculinity, and the influence or absence of God in the world, depending on where they stand.
And Mikkelsen absolutely commands the screen as he often does, though this time it’s with a quiet intensity (not to mention a severe beard and military-style buzz cut) that quickly turns to violence when necessary. After years in the military, killing has become second nature to him, but for the other men, it’s a shocking action that makes their hypothetical planning quickly become very real. Some of them fall in step; others cannot commit to killing another person. By playing the stiff, mission-focused soldier for much of the movie, his moments of channeling true emotions of grief and love for his daughter stand out and are even more impressive to behold.
Riders of Justice takes a few heart-stopping turns in its second half, and suddenly everything these men know and have done is called into question, and two things become clear: teenage daughters are well worth listening to and anyone claiming to have unlocked the secrets of probability should instantly be distrusted. Part buddy film, part intense action movie, with a great relationship drama thrown in, Riders of Justice continues an impressive run by both filmmaker Jensen and Mikkelsen, who is capable of so much beyond the villain roles that Hollywood movies want to give him all the time (and I say that with full knowledge that he is one of the greatest villainous actors of all time). Seek out this movie.
Riders of Justice is now playing in select theaters.
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