A soldier returns from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan after his wife’s death in a train accident and turns into a merciless avenger when he becomes convinced that his spouse was actually collateral damage in a vicious conspiracy. That Death Wish trope activates the plot in this Danish drama that reunites filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen with frequent collaborators Mads Mikkelsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, but things are never that simple-minded with Jensen. Instead of a revenge thriller, Riders of Justice is a violent, sometimes darkly funny but also surprising and warm observation of people grappling with grief, guilt, and the human impulse to make sense out of the incomprehensible.
A young girl’s wish for a blue bicycle for Christmas is what sets the film in motion. She has nothing to do with anyone else in the film. She doesn’t even live in Denmark, but her stated desire is the first link in a chain reaction that explodes into madness. Markus (Mikkelsen) adds another link with his decision to stay at his military post rather than return home for a visit with his family. Data scientist Otto (Kaas) forms one more link as a survivor of the train accident. But perhaps the most important link is the member of the Riders of Justice motorcycle gang who left his wheels home and took the train on that fateful afternoon.
While Markus and Otto are convinced that somehow the motorcycle gang is responsible for what the authorities deem an accident, they are each, in their own way grappling with guilt that implicates them in the event. Markus’ wife and daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) would not have been on the train had he come home. Otto has survivor’s guilt and not only for this one event.
Together, they are a mess. Otto at least has a support system in fumbling colleagues Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). They rally around Markus and Mathilde, too, but Markus is too much inside his own head to accept emotional support or to give it. He is useless to Mathilde, unable to offer the solace she desperately needs.
There are many pleasures in Riders of Justice, from the arresting performances of Mikkelsen, Kaas, and the rest of the cast to Jensen’s nuanced, complex screenplay to the chaos unleashed on the bikers by Markus and his oddball band of science geek brothers.
But what is most entrancing is watching Markus, Mathilde, Otto and his colleagues, and others drawn into their orbit slowly come together for far more emotionally resonant reasons than simple vengeance and seeing Markus – a man apparently dead inside long before he lost his wife – gradually return to the land of the living.
Riders of Justice is a rare film. Movies with this much brutal action are not supposed to leave audiences feeling warm and fuzzy about humanity. With the aid of his wonderful ensemble, especially Mikkelsen, in this latest work, Jensen manages exactly that. –Pam Grady
Riders of Justice is playing in theaters.