REVIEW: Riders of Justice

Riders of Justice, a Danish film written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, is yet another take on the 'older man seeking justice through violence.'  Revenge movies have been around for decades, but it was in 2009 that Taken (starring Liam Neeson) hit North American theatres and spawned a flurry of imitators.  A number of years later, I was sick and tired of these films.  There have been a few examples that knew how to use this vehicle for fist pumping action (John Wick, Wrath of Man), but the majority of them seriously missed the mark.  Revenge movies can be misguided fantasies of retribution through violence.  However, Riders of Justice proved to be an incredibly fresh take on a stale action sub-genre.

Starring Mads Mikkelsen as Markus, a member of Danish special forces, this film takes a much more nuanced look at themes such as dealing with grief, companionship, family, confirmation bias, and how violent revenge is pointless.  Markus' wife is killed in an explosion on a train, and Markus is later convinced by data fanatics Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and his friend Lennart (Lars Brygmann) that the explosion wasn't an accident.  Two many factors and numbers prove, they believe, that this was a targeted assassination of a person who was going to testify against members of outlaw motorcycle gang, Riders of Justice.

  After the police refuse to listen to Otto and Lennart, they seek out Markus to let him know.  While they seem to be surprised by his violent response, justice is what they were seeking, and the path Markus takes seems like the obvious outcome.  Although unintentional, this was the can of worms (to use that cliche because my brain won't let me think of something witty) that they opened when they approached Markus, and they have a responsibility in the horrors that come.

Markus' daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) is dealing with incredible pain, and trying to link together all of the events that ended up placing her and her mother on that train.  She needs to make sense of this tragedy, but there is no help from her father.  He won't talk about it, and we see that Markus doesn't know how to relate to his daughter.  This is the real backbone of the story.  The violence and action sequences, while really intense and well shot, aren't the main focus.  This 'action film' is focusing on much more important things than just a person with a set of skills killing everyone who pissed them off.

Otto and Lennart, as well as their friend and computer genius Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) begin to grow relationships with Mathilde and her boyfriend Sirius (Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt).  While we have Markus brooding and bathing in his anger, the other characters start forming a family unit.  Everyone is very broken.  Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler all have a lot of hurt and baggage from their past.  As the film progresses, we see how they all come to support and care for each other.  They are all hurt souls, and they become better through their connection with each other.  Perhaps this sounds a little cheesy, but Anders Thomas Jensen pulls it of as a contrast to how Markus deals with his emotions.

The performances here are all incredible.  I've been a big fan of Mikkelsen for years, and he creates a very layered character in Markus.  He has delivered vastly different performances over his career, and here he genuinely comes across as intimidating and bad ass.  Kaas, Brygmann, and Bro keep their quirky characters from feeling like one note caricatures.  Gadeberg brings a massive amount of emotion and heart in her portrayal of a daughter who needs the love and support of a father who is distant and internalizing his own pain.  The script is equally as solid as the acting, with the dialogue continually feeling authentic to the characters on screen.

The most surprising aspect of Riders of Justice is the humour found within.  Moments don't become slapstick gags, but it is the characters personalities and dialogue that provides a dark source of laughter.  I believe the point of this is to highlight that the characters in movies like this should be viewed as humans, and not just something for the audience to project themselves onto to satisfy the fantasy of pounding vengeance on horrible people.  While Markus can think only of killing those who wronged him, the rest of the film is about the real way people should deal with grief and pain.

In a way, I feel like Riders of Justice is a commentary on Hollywood's revenge tales.  One of main messages of this movie is clearly that seeking revenge won't heal a grieving person.  Surrounding ourselves with friends and family is what is needed.  It is a gritty action movie with very sentimental themes, and it all manages to work as a whole.  This is an extremely thoughtful film, and I was caught off guard by just how many themes it explored.  For myself, this is one of the best movies to have come out in 2021.

Rating - 4 out of 4 stars