REVIEW: Riders of Justice (Glasgow Film Festival 2021)
Fresh out of drinking up a storm in Another Round, Mads Mikkelsen stars in Riders of Justice, a darkly humorous revenge thriller that plays with genre, tone, and gives the Danish star yet another opportunity to prove that in the right role, he can do no wrong. Reeling after the death of his wife in a tragic train accident, Markus (Mikkelsen) and his daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), form an unlikely alliance with statistician geek Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), and his two colleagues, as they set out to prove that the train crash was a targeted attack involving local gang members.
It seems Mikkelsen succeeds in everything he turns his hand to, but as Markus, a deployed military man and now recent widower and single dad, he displays a steely-eyed stoicism and complex emotional dissociation, which makes for an immediate and commanding screen presence. It would be easy to liken this film to John Wick as Markus embarks on a similarly grief-fuelled, and violent pursuit of justice. But where that franchise ties itself up in lore, and particularly in the sequels begins to distance itself from its emotional beginnings, Riders of Justice instead commits to being both an exploratory narrative looking at the stages of grief, and an entertaining, “odd-couple” revenge thriller.
On paper, it really shouldn’t work, but in practice it absolutely does and it manages to balance its conflicting tones and ideas perfectly. There are real laugh-out-loud moments, mostly at the expense of Otto’s colleagues, Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). Lennart is the “too clever for his own good” archetype, in the vein of Dylan Moran’s Bernard from Black Books (they even look similar at times!), and Emmenthaler the slightly bumbling yet likeable oaf who is more preoccupied with the size and quality of his monitor screens than the dangerous exploits they’re getting into!
The film stumbles a little when it comes to the “villains”, who take the form of the gang members, and as the body count starts to rise, it becomes difficult to keep track of who is who and how they’re involved. However, this fits in with the story in a way, as the threads begin to overlap and criss-cross to the point where it seems the true enemy, or cause of the “accident”, may never actually reveal themselves.
As well as the humour and the brief but brutal bursts of violence, Riders of Justice also takes time for some real moments of catharsis. Whether through laughter, or the rare instances of emotion and quiet, it explores the very human notion of trying to find connectedness or reason in life-altering events and whether they could be avoided or changed. This is beautifully explored in a surprisingly touching scene where Mathilde shows Otto the post-it notes on her bedroom wall, trying to piece together what happened on the day of her mother’s death and how it could’ve been avoided; for example if her bike hadn’t been stolen, they never would’ve had to get the train. It’s something we have all done, particularly when an unexpected event occurs, we rationalise and speculate with ideas such as “well, if X hadn’t happened, then Y would’ve been avoided”, or something similar. However, Otto’s reasoning on the inevitability of things, the impossibility of being able to affect them, and how an unfathomable number of things would have to be changed to alter that particular sequence of events, is so eloquently and wonderfully explained.
In a time when so many are grieving, and trying to find reason in a world full of change, uncertainty and questions, it is moments like this that particularly resonate, and the resolution manages to be both touching, and hilarious, despite a certain open-endedness to proceedings.
Riders of Justice is another fantastic entry in the pantheon of excellent performances for Mads Mikkelsen. With a terrific ensemble cast, and a perfectly pitched fluidity to the way it skips between genres and moods, it’s a surprisingly nuanced action comedy that deserves to be a hit!