Every piece of marketing for Riders of Justice leads you to make a wrong assumption about the film. The poster of a gun-wielding Mads Mikkelsen on a dark backdrop, the font that’s been used for every action movie for the past 15 years, and even the generic title makes you think the Danish film is a revenge thriller. Which it is. But it’s also so much more. I don’t know how much of this is mere marketing trickery, selling the ‘foreign’ movie to the British audience with lowest common denominator tactics, or how much is clever, intentional misleading. All I know is I rented it on Amazon Prime expecting a dark Nordic noir where Mads Mikkelsen shoots people, an obligatory purchase, and was shocked when Riders of Justice became my favourite film of the year, full of unexpected humour and heart.
Mikkelsen plays Markus, a soldier stationed in Afghanistan who returns home when he learns his wife has died in a train accident. While caring for his daughter, with whom he has a strained relationship, Markus learns it may not have been an accident after all when a dead passenger is revealed to be a key witness in a trial against the criminal gang Riders of Justice. Furious at the revelation, he decides to pursue his own brand of justice. The film plays the standard revenge thriller beats and plays them well. The action and moments of brutality are great. Yet that’s not the film. It’s just a familiar framework on which to hang some much more interesting discussions and ideas.
Riders of Justice is also a comedy, which is wholly unexpected at first. This film is an accomplished balancing act, often switching tones in the middle of a scene and then back again. It’s a thriller, comedy, action movie, and family drama simultaneously. Only the Danes could make it work, their sensibilities being fairly close to British. There’s physical comedy and sight gags as well as much darker jokes. Most of the laughs come from the group of three computer nerds aiding Markus, who come to him with their theory behind the train crash and get wrapped up in the quest for vengeance. This leads to classic fish-out-of-water comedy but even these characters have trauma they are struggling to reconcile. One has lost his wife and daughter in a car accident he blames himself for; one has a bizarre but tender past involving a marching band; and the other has an obsession with barns which is played as a funny joke until it becomes an indicator of past childhood abuse.
In a landscape of cookie-cutter movies, Riders of Justice has something to say. Key themes and ideas that run through every element, whether serious or comedic. Characters are desperate to find the meaning in events that have led to their heartbreak. If, somehow, they can trace back each moment on a chain of happenstances, they could predict when such things may occur. A formula for life. A mathematically-predictable preordained system. The science of sorrow. One character creates a computer formula to track such patterns while another uses post-it notes on her bedroom wall. Completely antithetical technologies but connected through the human desire to understand life and the two bond and help each other come to terms with their loss. This is how the attack on the train is pieced together. All the right people in all the right places. It cannot be a coincidence, surely, but the tapestry of life unraveling. The film is the best examination of chaos theory since Spaced.
The entire chain of events in the film stems from one inciting incident: a child wanting a bicycle for Christmas. An act of joy brings so much pain. But this isn’t true. Not really. There is no great way to understand why things happen. Not everything does happen for a reason; it’s just cod philosophy for Facebook bios. Coincidences do exist and the band of avengers learn this in a shocking way. They were looking in the wrong place for understanding, externalising their internal issues. But while it led them on a path of revenge, it also led to a path of healing. Acceptance and growth rather than explanation.
Writing all this now I realise it sounds like sappy nonsence. It could have been, but it’s not. That’s where the rest of the film comes in. The balance between violence and humour and emotional heart prevents it from being melodramatic or pretentious; a tonal shift quickly squashing any self-importance as it arises. It also makes the film feel profoundly human. It’s ultimately about broken people who come together and find the solace and understanding they so desperately need in shared humanity. A found family. A series of unexpected pairings work through their problems together. At one point the computer nerds have to pose as grief councillors to trick Markus’s daughter but that is truly what they become, and it’s a relationship that flows both ways. Wounds are healed, relationships formed, and all in the middle of a very brutal revenge film.
Riders of Justice has real heart and is filled with unexpected twists, both plot-wise, tonally, and thematically. The conclusion, the real conclusion, after the climatic gun fight, is simply the cast of characters, all played wonderfully, sharing Christmas together. They’re not all perfect, not fixed, but healing and doing so together. There’s a beautiful film within the depravity. I watched Riders of Justice in December by accident, a coincidence, yet it has such joyful Christmas spirit and makes for a wonderful alternative Christmas film. It’s my film of the year and I highly recommend it.
Have you seen Riders of Justice? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.