Riders Of Justice (Retfærdighedens ryttere)

Denmark (2020) Dir. Anders Thomas Jensen

Or “Revenge Of The Nerds And Their Psycho Military Friend”. In all fairness, only one of this unlikely vigilante group is seeking vengeance, the other one directly affected wants to solve the criminal mystery the police seem incapable or disinterested in investigating. What could possibly go wrong?

With her car broken down and her daughter’s bike stolen, Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind) and Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) go shopping by train. Also on the train is analyst Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), having just been fired from his job, who notices someone acting oddly before he gets off. Otto gives up his seat for Emma, but moments later an explosion rocks the train; Otto and Mathilde survive but Emma is killed.

Emma’s husband Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) returns from serving in Afghanistan to take care of Mathilde. Meanwhile, Otto thinks the train explosion wasn’t an accident since a former gang member due to testify against a rival was onboard. The police won’t listen, so Otto enlists hacker mates Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) to find the bomber, then take the info to Markus, who wants revenge.

After the shocking opening to Riders Of Justice, one wonders how this was ever labelled a comedy but writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen is a man of surprises, just like the aforementioned bombing. Then again, one look at Otto with his 1970’s Open University appearance, completely with scruffy beard, glasses and dated wardrobe, it should have been obvious this wasn’t going to be all serious.

But the comedy is dark, mostly driven by pathos, whereas the real substance of the film is in its look at how the effects of heightened masculinity dictates the way some men deal with grief, while others channel it in different areas, though not always successfully. The story also plays out as a curious essay on probability and fate through a sinuous chain of events that ends up a tragic saga of mindless tit for tat.

You have to wait until the very end for everything to fall into place but it is worth it, as bittersweet as it is. The journey is deftly constructed to distract us from what is in front us despite plenty of clues hidden in plain sight; some are easy to work out, others not so, which is great for those who enjoy a surprise. Jensen’s script cleverly plays with our perceptions of the story direction and the conventions of genre storytelling.

The film opens innocently enough with a priest in Estonia looking to buy a bike for his niece but the vendor only has a red one and she wants blue. The vendor makes a call and we cut to outside a train station in Denmark where a blue bike is liberated by a gang of masked men. It isn’t difficult to assume Markus will mimic Liam Neeson in Taken but instead of retrieving a daughter it’s her bike he wants, but that is exactly what we are supposed to think.

Meanwhile, Otto and Lennart are handed their P45s for creating an algorithm they believe can predict the future through probability and mathematical calculation but their bosses deem a waste of time and resources. It may not predict the future as hoped, but there is something in the theory pertaining to fate and consequence, which troubles Otto statistician mind, blaming himself for giving Emma his seat on the train.

For Markus, his macho stance of bottling it up in dealing with his grief causes friction between him and Mathilde, lashing out at her and her boyfriend Sirius (Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt). Now Otto and friends have sown the seeds for revenge, the tension rises as Markus gets angrier; the first act of retribution is not the end of it, and the violent chaos that ensues is surprisingly less darker than the emotional upheaval the cast endure.

Carefully balancing the dark humour, grisly violence, and emotional drama, this is a film with uneven rhythms and should have fallen apart but Jensen is in control of this more than the viewer might believe. And after a while, we do acclimatise to it because of how the characters are drawn, all with flaws that are exaggerated yet rooted in reality which can easily pivot from silly to sympathetic. It may not seem like it at first, but the limp arm of Otto is not a comic affectation but part of his tragic history.

It is this depth to the cast that enables them to oscillate between buffoonery and touching humanity and not betray their root personalities, though this is related more to Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler. Markus is intrinsically complex from being a military man where showing emotion is frowned upon and letting his guard down in front of the daughter he needs to be strong for is not an option, manifest in his outbursts of rage.

Under any other circumstances it would seem like the story is overloaded with moving parts but Jensen’s eschewing of the obvious allows him expertly to weave each of these constituent elements into one complete, coherent, and very palatable work. It doesn’t seem possible that a film with a sedate and sardonic Three Stooges tribute act can be so blithely violent, gut wrenching and philosophically probing but that is what Jensen has pulled off here.

He also benefits from a strong cast to bring the characters alive, with Mads Mikkelsen is top form as human powder keg and resident killing machine Markus, with Andrea Heick Gadeberg providing terrific support as Mathilde, leaving Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lars Brygmann, and Nicolas Bro to fill in the blanks via their semi-comic antics as Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler respectively.

Riders Of Justice, I should point out, is the name of the gang on trial which is misleading but so is the promotion of this film. A few giggles are afforded but on the whole, this is a stirring, ingenious, blood soaked drama telling us men it is okay to cry.