VOD film review: Riders of Justice
Cathy Brennan | On 23, Aug 2021
Director: Anders Thomas Jensen
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Roland Møller
Watch Riders of Justice online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
Anders Thomas Jensen is a prolific screenwriter and in Riders of Justice, he reunites with international star Mad Mikkelsen to tell an unconventional tale of revenge. Such stories benefit from their simplicity and Jensen uses his chops as a writer to complicate things by introducing a staggering awareness of fickle fate.
Data analyst Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) gives up his seat on the train to a woman with her teenage daughter. Seconds later, the train blows up. Otto survives but the woman is dead. Atheistic towards the concept of coincidence, the nerd seeks out the woman’s husband, career soldier Markus (Mikkelsen). With his two tech savvy friends, Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), Otto pitches his theory to Markus that the explosion was in fact a gangland assassination and that his wife was unfortunate collateral damage. Already riven by trauma from his time as a soldier, Markus joins forces with the dorky trio to enact bloody revenge on the criminals responsible, all while trying to hide it from his daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg).
There is a fluidity of genre in the film, often alternating between dark comedy and heartfelt drama, before going full tilt into a Liam Neeson actioner as it hurtles towards the climax. Chucklesome banter between the oddball group can snap into a bloody gun battle within a minute and dissolve into a scene of post-combat tenderness in the next. This twitchy approach to genre keeps things nimble, but it also means that the tone can be rather confused at points. This costs Riders when it comes to significant moments for its characters, all of whom carry some kind of personal trauma that informs their personalities.
Resonant themes of mental health and toxic masculinity are explored, yet whenever they reveal themselves through the script, there’s a lack of depth and conviction. Unfavourable comparisons can be drawn between another recent Mikkelsen film about masculinity: Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round. Both films feature a moment where Mikkelsen’s character breaks against a gust of overwhelming emotion and is unable to hold onto a stoic facade. It was devastating to watch in Another Round, yet in Riders of Justice such a moment is unintentionally funny because of the narrative circumstances that lead to it (not going to spoil here). Characters feel like pieces on a checkerboard whose movements serve the screenplay. Past traumas are unearthed through narrative contrivances that border on the insulting, particularly when it comes to Lennart and Emmenthaler.
As a result, trying to connect with the story and its players on an emotional level gradually becomes a frustrating exercise. However, Riders of Justice becomes far more interesting when its preoccupation with coincidence is viewed as a meta-commentary on the way narrative films like this are written. A subplot sees Mathilde attempting to cope with the loss of her mother by chronicling the events and quirks of fate that led to them taking the train that day. She does this by sticking Post-It notes on her bedroom wall. It mirrors the way that Otto constructs his assassination theory in the first act. That charting of narrative possibilities by constructing various “and thens” is not dissimilar to the work of a consummate screenwriter like Jensen. Suddenly, when seen as a filmed writing exercise, the genre-bending begins to make a lot more sense.
Reading the film as a screenwriter’s dive into his own navel saves Riders of Justice from utter tedium, but it comes at the expense of a more human story that could have been told with genuine feeling.
This review was originally published during Glasgow Film Festival 2021