What a year Mads Mikkelsen is having. The charismatic Dane is fresh from the success of Thomas Vinterberg‘s festival winning Another Round – which has rumours of Oscar noms in its future – and here he is with another Danish feature, Anders Thomas Jensen’s Riders of Justice. It seems going home has served Mikkelsen very well. With a tone that’s perfectly balanced between brutal violence and pitch-black humour, which will have you laughing out loud at times, Riders of Justice manages to escape its slightly formulaic premise and elevate itself above the usual revenge thriller fare.
The Blue Bicycle
Riders of Justice begins innocently enough with a gauzy Christmas scene. An old man and his niece are walking along a street when they see a bicycle vendor. The niece tells the old man she would like a blue bicycle for Christmas and the vendor makes arrangements to have one delivered. This seemingly innocuous moment will have major ramifications, leading to the deaths of at least a dozen people. This is partly the point because Riders is – on the surface – concerned with the statistical probability of chance. Early on we meet Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a scientist who makes a pitch to design an algorithm that he believes will predict the future by calculating the likelihood of any event using statistics. Otto argues that there are no coincidences; everything is a result of many things which came together to make that event a reality.
When Otto later gives his seat up to a woman on the train home mere moments before a blast rips through the train and kills her, he becomes obsessed with the idea that it was not a coincidence. He searches out the woman’s husband Markus (a barely recognisable Mikkelsen sporting a glorious beard) an emotionally stunted soldier with a temper problem who is trying to help his teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) deal with her grief. Otto and his two colleagues convince Markus the explosion was the work of a biker gang called The Riders of Justice, who had targeted an informant on the same train. Although the reasoning is barely tenable, relying as it does on the idea that no one would throw away an $8 sandwich, it’s enough for Markus. Armed with this information (and a not insubstantial amount of firepower) he sets out to kill every member of the Riders of Justice, bringing Otto and his two friends along for the ride.
The Three Stooges
What starts off as a straightforward revenge flick quickly becomes exponentially complicated by Markus’ daughter Mathilde and her boyfriend. Mathilde wants a therapist to help her deal with her trauma (something Markus is completely averse to) and so Otto’s colleagues Lennart (a wonderful performance from Lars Brygmann who goes from slapstick humour to moments of genuine pathos with ease) and Emmenthaler (Nicholas Bro) must play the role of therapists in order to explain their presence to Mathilde. Together they make a sort of Danish three stooges, and this leads to some utterly hilarious moments as all three scientists – Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler – are extremely socially awkward. There is some underlying hints of autistic behaviour, for example, Emmenthaler’s almost Tourettes-like tendency to drop random swear words when he’s stressed, or his OCD towards the computer equipment they use to identify the Riders of Justice and their locations. Elsewhere Lennart is dealing with his own issues which manifest themselves in a spectacular, and unsettling way after he pushes Markus a little too far.
Finally, Otto has a tragic past of his own which lends weight to his own social issues. These moments are terrifically well balanced and never feel like they’re going too broad or comical. Everything is weighed down by loss and grief, which is what Riders of Justice is really about. Through all the comedy and violence, we’re constantly reminded – be it from Markus and Mathilde’s grief for their wife and mother, or Otto’s for his daughter – that these are people dealing with grief in their own ways. Somehow, Jensen manages to find profundity in all the madness. Mathilde is of the belief that her mother’s death is her fault, as the only reason they took the train that day was that someone had stolen her blue bicycle. She plasters post-it notes on her bedroom wall analysing the sequence of events that lead to her mother’s death, trying to understand the reason for it. “There are a centillion reasons”, Otto tells her, in perhaps the movie’s best scene. “But they won’t help you”.
Through all of this is the idea of random probability. Jensen manages to tie all of the events into one moment, which propels the narrative forward, and then completely destroys the concept in one incredible moment, flipping the whole thing on its head bringing Riders of Justice to a beautifully realised denouement.
Riders of Justice manages to balance its brand of pitch-black humour and gory violence well. Underneath all the comedy and action are moments of real heart and pathos, which imbue each character with believe-ability even at their most slapstick and ensure you root for them throughout. Bolstered by excellent performances from all of its cast members (but predominantly from Lie Kass, Brygmann, and Mikkelsen), Riders of Justice manages to shake off its occasional formulaic moments and become something much more profound than you think it would be. Certainly not one to miss.
Mads Mikkelsen is on something of an excellent run of late. Which of his performances is your favourite? Let us know in the comments!
Riders of Justice was shown at the Glasgow Film Festival on 26th February.
Watch Riders of Justice
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