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Five Cent Cine: Riders of Justice

A Revenge/Comedy Cocktail

It’s no easy task to marry revenge with comedy. Each can be satisfying in its own way, but the genres have commonly been treated like oil and water. Bruce Willis manages a sardonic sensibility that tempers an otherwise tense rescue of his wife from terrorists in “Die Hard” (1988), and Quentin Tarantino masters the cocktail in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” (2019). But the standard revenge film is all straight-faced earnestness: Liam Neeson in “Cold Pursuit” (2019), and other films; Mel Gibson yelling “Gimme back my son!” (“Ransom,” 1996).

Markus (Mads Mikkelsen), the protagonist of Anders Thomas Jensen’s “Riders of Justice,” is in the Gibson/Neeson mold, and his pursuit of revenge is real enough, but the film is quirky, entertaining—and yes, funny. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan returning home to post-card, fantasy-like Estonia, Markus is a no-nonsense, low-affect alpha male with all the skills necessary to dispatch a kidnapper, or in this case, a killer. So good is Mikkelsen in this role that it’s almost impossible to imagine it played by the same actor who was the balletic Martin in this year’s Oscar-winning “Another Round”—reviewed here.

The incident that triggers the plot takes place on the subway, where Markus’s wife is offered a seat by fellow passenger Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), only to die minutes later in a crash. (This is the fifth feature film with the trio of Jensen, Mikkelsen and Kaas.) We know Otto from an earlier scene in which he and his buddy Lennart (Lars Brygmann) inform the incredulous Board of Directors of an unnamed company of their 46-month data-heavy study producing algorithms that prove rich folks drive a Mercedes and poor folks a Kia. They’re summarily fired, but their interest in statistics and causation is sustained by their friend Emmanthaler (Nicolas Bro), an overweight computer genius/math type who’s deep into precise probabilities.

Lennart as the fixer.

Fueled by Otto’s guilt over “causing” the death of Markus’s wife (Otto has a deeper and more serious backstory that is revealed later), the three geeky guys conclude that the subway crash was no accident but rather the intentional act of a vile, murderous gang, the Riders of Justice. The concepts are serious: data vs. coincidence, unjustified reliance on formulas, “nothing is certain in life,” the “but for” argument. On that level, “Riders” is a riff on causation, using our deep belief in the revenge trope and the human desire to attribute causation to events to lure us into the film’s center. But comedy prevails: an uneaten sandwich and drink (rather than math and stats) clinch the geeks’ case.  

Otto and Lennart track down Markus and explain everything to him, with serious consequences for the gang member they’ve identified as the subway killer. That could be the beginning of a siege of grief and recrimination—and Markus is appropriately and deeply remorseful—but Jensen manages to (mostly) sustain the comic tone of the film. A “fixer” scene reprises Harvey Keitel’s clean-up role in “Pulp Fiction” (1994); Lennart adopts the therapeutic voice as a pretend “psychiatrist” to Markus’s overly earnest daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg); a fantasy of ultra-violent self-defense—ala Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969)—shifts the burden of guilt; and our heroes enjoy the Christmas holidays while sporting “ugly” holiday sweaters. And that list doesn’t take into account Mathilda’s way-too-serious, blue-haired boyfriend named (yes) Sirius (Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt) and the Ukrainian boy (Gustav Lindh as Bodashka) sold into sex slavery (that Anders can make comedy of this topic tells you something about the film and the director’s talents).

At first blush, the title is a poor one that does little to suggest the film’s content. In the end it seems more revealing, and likely ironic: who, after all, are the “riders of justice”?

Date: 2020

Stars: 3.5 (out of 4 stars)

Director: Anders Thomas Jensen

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Andrea Heick Gadeberg, Lars Brygmann, Nicolas Bro, Gustav Lindh, Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt

Country: Denmark

Language: Danish, subtitled in English

Other Awards: 6 wins, 15 nominations

Runtime: 116 minutes

Availability: For rent or purchase on multiple sites, including Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and Fandango Now; see JustWatch here.

Lead image: The unlikely revenge posse of, left to right, the three geeks–Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), Emmanthaler (Nicolas Bro), and Lennart (Lars Brygmann)–and the Afghan war vet Markus (Mads Mikkelsen)

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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