The Danes have a long, long history of dark fairy tales. Scrub away the Disneyfication and Hans Christian Andersen will keep you up at night. That tradition continues with Riders of Justice, a fable about the importance of men getting therapy, disguised as a revenge thriller. Mads Mikkelsen’s bushy beard and the film’s Christmas setting lend the movie to an irony-laden, moral-toting mythos—and its black humor, tough action and complex emotional core work just well enough that, like reading a classic fairy tale, you’ll be along for the ride after coming to terms with a few tonal surprises.
Yes, writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen co-wrote the abysmal The Dark Tower adaptation. Try not to hold that against him: He’s also written dozens of Danish films and won a few Oscars. Riders of Justice sees him reunite once again with Mikkelsen, who has appeared in all the films Jensen has helmed. This time, the Danish demigod is playing military man Markus, a recent widower who finds out that the circumstances around his wife’s death might be more than accidental.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a longtime Mikkel-simp or a new convert looking to explore the actor’s work after seeing his Oscar-winning Another Round: Mikkelsen satisfies. He’s an angry meathead made angrier and meatier by the loss of his wife and the cold confrontation with the fact that he barely knows his remaining family member, his teen daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). His old-school response to trauma is a swallowed bitterness, an acceptance that the world is cruel, unfeeling and unknowable. And yet, his isolation and pain are quickly interrupted by those that think the opposite.
A trio of deadpan doofuses a la The X-Files’ Lone Gunmen (all variations on crackpot tech or probability nerds) notice that hey, maybe this train crash that very specifically killed a gang member who was turning on his biker brethren might not have been coincidence. Led by Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), the man who barely escaped death by giving up his seat to Markus’ wife, these goobers—basically who Dr. Ian Malcolm would actually be—push a theory that helps emphasize the film’s elegant prologue scene: That tangible, trackable cause-and-effect ripples are more trustworthy, satisfying and ultimately true than any sort of fate or randomness.
Naturally, this leaves poor, bottled-up Markus with only one logical, self-destructive outlet: Murderous revenge. But Riders of Justice is no John Wick. Jensen films some impressive action—intimate and upsetting rather than basely satisfying—and peppers in absurd or absolutely arid humor as his team of fragile, needy, odd, obsessive men seek closure, but ironically this fable is far more grounded than anything as mythic as the American Action Hero.
Most of this comes from Jensen’s tightroping script, gut-busting and sad in equal measure—with the latter manifesting not as aching melancholy but balanced with the jokes in big heartbreaking bursts. Every violent impulse to seek vengeance is met with (even if it often overpowers) attempts at psychoanalysis and support. This comes with self-effacing, amusing critiques of one-size-fits-all therapy, especially as it relates to stoic manly men like Markus, but slowly peeking out from underneath, the unlikely ensemble enhances and complicates Riders of Justice’s thematic look at the constant collision of our interconnected lives. It may have led to a tragic death, but it also led to them being together. The group’s members steal scenes in their own hilarious and touching ways, with Lars Brygmann accentuating the former with some knockout facial expressions, while Kaas owns the latter thanks to a few compelling monologues and scenes shared with Gadeberg. The tragicomic third, played by Nicolas Bro, rests comfortably in the middle.
But at the heart of their (sometimes action tropey) attempts at understanding, healing and, ultimately, companionship, is Markus. A tragic figure, a tough ol’ bastard who’s less a craggy badass than a crumbling statue of one—he looks like he could kick some ass, but every time he does, you’re afraid he might totally collapse. The quiet character allows Mikkelsen plenty of room to exercise his expert body control: The breaths he takes as he steels himself before looking at his wife’s corpse in the morgue; stiffly turning on a dime after an unspoken decision has been made; guilt physically weighing on him while he goes about his day. Deft fight scenes feel (and look) like superhuman feats—until we realize that they’re more inhuman than anything else. Through his performance, a dilapidated obelisk in the middle of his new social circle’s bustling town square, Riders of Justice always maintains its sobriety.
As we see—and are often told, in the main weakness of Jensen’s script—how futile and actively destructive their quest (and Markus’ struggle against true self-examination and openness) is, the movie evolves. Meaning and purpose flit in and out of relevance and, ultimately, reality. As much as it takes the piss out of modern psychotherapy, it’s a movie that understands the power of unexamined masculine fear, rage and the helplessness it all stems from. Glimpsing this complex core in a film with such a varying tone can be jarring, but Jensen’s control of aesthetic and setting—painting homey realism and detailed character, highlighted by his wry sense of humor—allow it to sneak under our expectations just as it creeps up on Markus. Though there’s a bit of a moral jumble to its ultimately productive deconstruction of the revenge movie and it’ll certainly never be a bedtime story, Riders of Justice still has a savvy lesson to impart to the grown-up children raised on the strong and silent type.
Director: Anders Thomas Jensen
Writers: Anders Thomas Jensen
Stars: Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Andrea Heick Gadeberg, Lars Brygmann, Nicolas Bro, Gustav Lindh, Roland Møller
Release Date: May 14, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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