Imagine the plotline of John Wick – an emotionally-repressed and violently unhinged military soldier who seeks to avenge the death of his wife (instead of a pet dog) by going up against the criminal organisation suspected of causing the tragedy. Now, imagine that same plotline but John Wick is joined by The Three Stooges as his therapists. Oh, and it’s all set at Christmas! Well, that is the plot for Mads Mikkelsen’s new film Riders of Justice. Watch out Die Hard, you may have some competition on your hands for the Best Christmas Action film!
But on a serious note, director Anders Thomas Jensen’s film has a lot more riding within its complex labyrinth. It’s the type of wild caper adventure that’s high on dark humour and yet emotionally devastating when it needs to be.
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It’s reminiscent of last year’s London Film Festival darling Another Round (which also starred Mads Mikkelsen). The plot shifting around on a drunken simulation as its leading characters deal with the highs and lows of their escapades, revealing more about themselves and their coping mechanisms to explain the pitfalls of their lives. Whilst Jensen didn’t direct that film (that honour belonged to Thomas Vinterberg), both Another Round and Riders of Justice have a confident belief in self. It accepts the wild, tonal swings it indulges in, but never shies away from the consequences of its endeavours. And with so many grey areas at its disposal, in the process we’re witnessing the best of Danish cinema.
In Riders of Justice, that element is explored in a series of chain reaction moments. An old man (looking the part of Father Christmas besides the jolly red suit) wants to buy his niece a bike. The niece rejects the offer – she wants a blue bike instead of the red one on offer. The bike vendor makes a phone call to thieves, who steal a bike chained up outside a station. That bike belonged to Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), and with no means of transport, her mother, Emma (played by Anne Birgitte Lind), decides to give her a lift to school in the family car. But the car fails to start, and her husband Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) calls to inform her that his military tour has been extended by three months. Skipping the bad news to have a mother/daughter day, they take a train. Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) offers his seat to Mathilde’s mother – a mere few seconds before the train crashes and kills her instantly. With such a high level of coincidence, it’s enough to be a Charlie Day conspiracy meme.
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But in dissecting its premise, Jensen uses his film to explore the complexity of the grief cycle, grappling with the conflicting emotions of guilt and the things we tell ourselves to make sense of traumatic deaths. The depiction hits home: the shock, the anger, the heartbreak, the endless questioning, the pits of depression and the sudden loneliness – if you’ve personally gone through its hellish cycle, the raw portrayal is scarily accurate. And what makes Riders of Justice even more endearing (outside of the heightened eccentricity and brutality) is how wonderfully structured and intricately woven it is in putting together all the dynamic pieces.
Otto, grief-stricken by the tragedy, pulls together information that suggests the train crash was more than an accident, an assassination plot involving a witness who was about to testify against the Riders of Justice. He enlists the help of Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicholas Bro), and after tracking down a suspect through facial recognition (after lowering the threshold of accuracy), they present it to Markus as proof of the connection.
It’s the type of superhero vigilantism that we fantasise about, driven by our own ‘Batman complex’ and the dozens of Netflix True Crime documentaries out there that allude to the self-made investigations and taking justice within our own hands. Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler are nerds in their own fields – the data analyst (Otto), the tech genius (Emmenthaler) and the eccentric hacker/psychologist who’s hilariously referred to as looking like “the guitarist from Queen” (Lennart). Even Markus’ barn serves as their ‘Bat Cave’ of operations.
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But what is so brilliantly subverted by the director is how much their excited bravado has a cost. Emmenthaler sees it as an opportunity to Rambo his way as Markus’ apprentice. Lennart sees it as an opportunity for revenge. Otto – the most rational one out of the trio – sees their operations as “outrageously illegal”. The Three Stooges comment is an exaggerated statement, considering how the trio are much more than that. But it only notes how much they complement Mikkelsen’s Markus, as well as revealing their own traumatic pasts when reality starts to kick in.
The absurdity begins to intensify as the gang tries to keep their secret away from Markus’ daughter Matilde, posing as Markus’ psychotherapists to deal with the death of his wife. And when the events spiral out of control which brings into the fold a sex worker in Bodashka (Gustav Lindh), roped into the madcap, revenge caper, they become an oddball mix of broken individuals who turn themselves into a family.
In its own twisted, uncompromising way, Riders of Justice is therapy. It finds healing through some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments and reconciliation through confrontation and responsibility. And it’s through these pockets of moments where Jensen’s screenplay finds the heart of the story. Whether it’s using the comforts of religion and the Venn diagram of post-it notes on her bedroom wall, which Mathilde uses to rationalise her grief, or through the shared company of others, there’s a ‘method to the madness’ it explores. Like life itself, it doesn’t have the right answers, but it has a wild time in the process.
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And living up to that statement is Mads Mikkelsen, proving yet again that there is nothing he can’t do. The beauty of this particular role is how much he immerses himself into it, possessing an insane ability to find the empathetic heart for the toughest of emotionally wrought characters. And as the stone-faced Markus, this might be his most challenging, simply because of how much it relies on withdrawal. The comedy (to put it lightly) to his emotions comes from how much he doesn’t react. While Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler can go back and forth being the punchline, Mikkelsen tells the story with his eyes – disconnected and absent from the real world that refuses to adequately deal with the fractured relationship with his daughter and her emotional concerns for him. As the walking encapsulation of rage, Anders Thomas Jensen methodically focusses on Markus’ violent escalation, knowing full well he will eventually meet his breaking point. And when he does – to put it simply – Mikkelsen, with all the weight and power in his performance, is an actor at the top of his game.
In any other hands, this insane and inventive story would have been a muddled mess, and occasionally it flirts with that delicate balance. But Anders Thomas Jensen’s creation pulls together a film that is vividly entertaining and emotionally profound. It has no right to work, but it does. And I’ll tell you something, ‘Little Drummer Boy’ has never sounded so epic.
Riders of Justice is playing at Glasgow Film Festival until 1st March.