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.
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”?
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
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)