Review: Riders of Justice

Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen’s revenge film manages to hit all the expected beats in terms of violent actions and righteous payback while undermining most of the narrative justification necessary to get the audience rooting for said violence. But unlike a lot of other unconventional Danish genre films, it’s not as subversive as it thinks it is, owing mainly to its uneven comic tone. But it is quite clever, and it’s the cleverness of the central plot idea that draws you in.

The tightly structured opening ends in a train accident that kills several people, including Emma, the wife of professional soldier Markus (Mads Mikkelsen), who is already guilt-ridden over how much time he puts into his work at the expense of his family. His teenage daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), who was with her mother and survived the wreck, has never been particularly close to Markus, and now resents his presence even more as he arranges for the funeral and seethes silently because he has no one to blame for his wife’s death. Soon, however, he will have someone to blame. As it turns out, a statistician named Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) was also on the train. In fact, he gave up his seat for Emma right before the crash. But he also noticed on the train a rather fearsome looking man and later found out that the man was on his way to testify against a notorious right-wing biker gang, Riders of Justice. After Emma’s funeral, Otto shows up at Markus’s door with a theory based on the odds that such a crash could not happen naturally. Otto thinks that maybe the crash was planned in order to kill the witness, meaning it was carried out by the Riders of Justice.

This is exactly the kind of news Markus, who is in the military because it’s the kind of life that suits his temperament, wants, and thus he embarks on a project to get revenge against the Riders, but he isn’t alone. Not only do Mathilde and Otto join in the carnage, but two other associates of Otto’s, probability expert Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and computer hacker Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), neither of whom are what you would call action figures but who have, buried in their respective pasts, sources of trauma that gives them reasons to take their frustrations out on the notorious Riders, even if the Riders themselves had nothing to do with those traumas. What sticks in the back of the mind of the viewer is, of course, the very real possibility that the Riders had nothing to do with the train crash, but as they say, once you start on a course of action that involves killing people, you just have to keep killing people.

What keeps the movie interesting is its unpredictability, not in terms of action, which is pretty rote, but rather in terms of motivation. Markus isn’t simply a rage-filled killing machine and Mathilde isn’t simply a rebellious teen who would rather punish her father than the Riders. More interestingly, the trio of eggheads are more than the sum of their resentments, but as noted above, the comical contours of their interactions sometimes lead to puzzling outcomes, and much of the intended humor falls flat as a result. But you have to hand it to Jensen: He has a weird way of telling a story. 

In Danish and Estonian. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Riders of Justice home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Zentropa Entertainments3 ApS & Zentropa Sweden AB/Rolf Konow

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