It’s a little soon (for American audiences who may have only just seen Oscar winner Another Round) to imagine Mads Mikkelsen being perfect for another role, and Riders of Justice may not be in an awards-friendly genre, but I can’t think of anyone else who would be equal to the task here. That isn’t to say that Riders of Justice gives us any roles that demand Best Actor attention, it doesn’t, but Mikkelsen’s Markus is a quiet, stoic, soldier who has to reasonably deliver emotional destruction, while suddenly having to wrangle a band of misfits, “deal” with his daughter, and coordinate the take down of a biker gang. That’s more difficult than it seems, insofar as the acting, especially as a man who simply doesn’t like dealing with people at all. It’s the kind of character that, if it goes wrong, is wooden and one-note at best, and can’t earn any of the emotion later in the game.
In Riders of Justice, Markus returns home from deployment when his wife is killed in a train accident. He doesn’t get far into dealing with the loss, or re-establishing a relationship with his semi-estranged daughter, when a computer scientist/probability specialist, Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), comes to him with the idea that it wasn’t an accident at all. Otto was on the train, and in fact gave up his seat to Markus’ wife, which obviously means he has a bit of survivor’s guilt driving him. More importantly, Otto noticed a suspicious man who got off the train just before the accident, and knows that a member of the titular Riders of Justice, who was going to testify against his old gang, was also on the train and died. With the help of his two sidekicks, Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), Otto has managed some hacking and shows up with his proof to try to get Markus to exact revenge.
Markus, easily pulled toward anything that hints at meaning and gives him something to do, wants more information, but is ill-equipped to deal with a trio of tech nerds overloaded with baggage, while trying to keep his daughter from thinking he’s a psychopath. Otto, unsure where to point himself following the tragedy that almost killed him, can’t wrap his head around the probabilities involved in the whole affair being sheer luck. He’s done the math.
Writer/Director Anders Thomas Jensen puts a new spin on the recently popular sub-genre of Quest Action with aging heroes by putting an almost unimaginable focus on the emotional stability of everyone involved. Together with the teaming of the casual effectiveness of Markus and the inadequacies of the “societally challenged,” the film becomes almost a cacophony of hyperbolic metaphor. All the while, the crew is forced to confront the curiosity of working as a team. Hacking and “talking to a daughter” are as confounding to Markus yet simple to “the bullied,” as the reverse is true when it comes to killing people… or functioning in society from a different perspective. And yet, Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler have a few surprises in them, and Markus isn’t completely predictable by way of his stereotype either.
There’s a slick style of action that is almost John Wick-ian battling for time with the comedic play of nerds wandering far afield of their element, and while that causes the film some problems as tone and mood seem to change with the wind, it’s mostly forgivable. Frankly, the story is working at cross purposes and can’t be perfectly fused. Delivering the depth of purpose of all those after the gang, including Emmenthaler who was roped into the deal, at the same time as diving into the fake counseling of a young woman who has lost her mother as part of hiding what you’re actually doing, does not lend itself to cohesion.
On the other hand, it does help you tear things apart, and it hooks you by keeping you guessing. There isn’t much some part of this team can’t tackle, surprisingly, but it’s a comedy of errors as competence moving toward a goal for the sake of having a goal. Delivering that metaphor for “grief function” is its own achievement and if things have to feel a bit off at times, so be it.
There’s something almost Shakespearean about Markus and his cast of curiosities, even if only in the smallest notes, like what Markus thinks, “Yeah. I shouldn’t have done that,” can cover, and it’s ultimately a play that wildly expands on which work the genre can manage.