Riders of Justice is a Danish thriller from Academy Award-winning director Anders Thomas Jensen (Adam’s Apples, Men & Chicken). Part revenge movie, part primal scream, it tackles grief and revenge as both an action thriller and dark comedy.
Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) is a soldier, deployed to Afghanistan, when he receives the news that his wife and daughter were in a train accident. His wife did not survive. Returning home to Denmark, Markus struggles with his grief. He refuses advice, counselling and anything resembling any form of help. Markus struggles to relate to his daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), and is not a comforting presence. Their relationship was already distant and his grief-driven bouts of violence and unsympathetic advice drive a further wedge between them.
A few days after the crash, they are visited by Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and his two friends, Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). Otto was on board the train with Mathilde and her mother, Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind). As a mathematician by trade, Otto is convinced that, statistically, the chances of the crash being an accident are almost impossible. He presents Markus with compelling evidence that the three friends have uncovered: The crash was intentional, and responsibility lies with a criminal biker gang called the Riders of Justice. The four new friends set out to make them pay.
Riders of Justice is not a straightforward revenge movie. It incorporates action movie violence, a dark sense of humour and some serious thoughts about grief. It’s an interesting approach that mostly works because of strong performances from Mikkelsen, Lie Kaas and the rest.
If nothing else, Riders of Justice gives Mads Mikkelsen ample opportunity to demonstrate his versatility. Whether he is a seedy drug dealer (Pusher), suave international supervillain (Casino Royale), or a mute Viking (Valhalla Rising), Mikkelsen is always terrific. Riders of Justice sees him sport a gruff militia beard and a don’t-tread-on-me personality, and from minute one we are in no doubt that he could probably fracture your spine with nothing more than a stern look.
But Nikolaj Lie Kaas is every bit Mikkelsen’s equal here as the tortured Otto, who deals with his own grief in a very different way. Fans of Scandinavian crime thrillers The Bridge and The Killing will appreciate the excellent Nicolas Bro; and Andrea Heick Gadeberg is also great as Mathilde, the voice of reason in Markus’ increasingly chaotic world.
However, getting the tone right remains a problem throughout. Sillier sub-plots like Lennart masquerading as a psychologist, and the wackier extremes of the central friendship, feel at odds with the rest of the movie. At times it’s like John Wick meets that episode of The Simpsons where the college nerds move in. The light humour doesn’t always sit well alongside the darker violence and cathartic grief rage.
There’s another movie somewhere in here too – one trying to make sense of a senseless universe. Looking for meaning and significance where random, tragic chance is the only constant. But Riders of Justice doesn’t have it figured out yet and, ultimately, it’s this inability to pick a lane that undermines it.
Still, you can’t say Riders of Justice isn’t interesting. Mikkelsen fans will enjoy another sterling performance and the action is exciting. So, despite its muddled identity, Riders of Justice still has more than enough going for it to make it a worthwhile watch.