Fighting Mads

"Riders of Justice" looks like straight-to-VOD schlock. It's not. It's really good.

Fighting Mads
Mads Mikkelsen, l., in “Riders of Justice”

The Danish movie “Riders of Justice” has been kicking around your VOD rental menu since late May, and, let me guess, you’ve probably thumbed past it a dozen times without a second look. That title. That poster image: A glowering bearded camo dude with unspecified things ’sploding behind him in the background. Even the font is left over from a lesser Jean-Claude van Damme movie. Unless you’re a deep-dyed Mads Mikkelsen fan – which, fair enough, a lot of us are – there is nothing to distinguish this from the 4,278 other B-grade action thrillers floating around Netflix and Amazon Prime Video like turds in a punchbowl. The film’s generic trailer is no help, either.

So, surprise: “Riders of Justice” is downright excellent – philosophical, unnerving, often extremely funny, ultimately quite touching. It’s a thinking person’s revenge thriller that toys with notions of coincidence and free will while confidently juggling tones to keep a viewer off balance but locked in. And it has our man Mads, who casual American viewers know as the bloody-eyed villain in “Casino Royale” (2006) or the young Hannibal Lecter in NBC’s “Hannibal” (2013-2016) but whose turns in the Oscar-nominated “The Hunt” (2012) and the Oscar-winning “Another Round” (2020) have solidified his status as one of the most charismatic stars of our time.

Mads Mikkelsen and Andrea Heick Gadeberg in “Riders of Justice”

He’s a very different Mads in this one, hulking and repressed, a warrior with nowhere to put his grief. A sociopathic version of The Rock. His character, Markus, is stationed somewhere desert-y when the movie opens, and the implication is that he’s been there far too long to easily come back. When his wife, Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind), is killed in a Copenhagen subway explosion, Markus returns to an angry teenage daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), aching for a therapist to help pull her out of her despair. Markus isn’t the kind of dad who has much use for therapists. He’s the kind of dad who introduces himself to his daughter’s boyfriend by punching the kid in the eye.

The police are convinced the explosion was an accident. Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a sad-eyed mathematician who gave Emma his seat on the train and is wracked with guilt, thinks otherwise. He saw a suspicious man get off the train ahead of the blast; among the dead was a member of a criminal gang about to testify against his boss. Otto sees patterns and probabilities everywhere, and a long trail of cause and effect that our human brains can’t begin to process. “All events are products of a series of preceding events,” he says, with the sadness of a man who knows he’ll never follow the string back to its start.

l. to r. Nicholas Bro, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lars Brygmann, and Mads Mikkelsen

The title of “Riders of Justice” refers to the criminal gang, but it also describes (with all attendant irony) the group of misfits who come together in a vigilante conspiracy: The simmering powder-keg Markus, the statistics wonk Otto, and Otto’s two hacker colleagues, Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicholas Bro), the former thin and chirpy, the latter corpulent and aggrieved. Later they’ll be joined by a boyish Ukrainian sex slave (Gustav Lindh), Markus’s daughter, and the boyfriend (Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt) in a makeshift family as warm as it is deranged.

Everyone is terribly damaged here or in denial; the daughter believes her father’s new friends are not a dysfunctional Manny, Moe, and Jack but rather a therapy team from the Danish national health service. (Since Lennart has been to 25 psychologists in 40 years, she’s not altogether wrong.) The movie suggests that our need to assign blame – to anyone, anywhere – is both perfectly understandable and a road that only leads to further damage. “It’s nobody’s fault,” muses Otto. “It’s just easier when there’s someone to get mad at.” Which, to be honest, sums up the “Death Wish” genre in its entirety.

l. to r., Gustav Lindh, Lars Brygmann, Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt, Andrea Heick Gadeberg, Nikolaj Lie Kaas in “Riders of Justice”

The writer-director is Anders Thomas Jensen, who has written award-winning melodramas for Susanne Bier (“Brothers,” “After the Wedding,” “In a Better World”) and directed a few maliciously playful oddities for himself, including the cannibal comedy “The Green Butchers” (2003) and the indescribable “Men & Chicken” (2015), both starring Mikkelsen. “Riders of Justice” is Jensen’s most mainstream effort to date, but his metaphysical bent and eye for the absurd takes the vengeance-is-mine plot to surprising and provocative places. The cliches are here – the target practice in the woods, the machine gun battles in the street, a snarling villain, a bullet-spattered climax – but they’re reinfused with gonzo humor and something richer: A gentle, free-floating sadness for our inability to see the daisy chain of cause and effect in a way that might reverse the gears, undo the pain, bring our loved ones back to life. “Riders of Justice” is a human comedy disguised as a chest-beating action thriller, and the best joke of all is that the audiences for both are well served.

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