Riders of Justice

2021 | Unrated (R equivalent) | starring Mads Mikkelsen, Andrea Heick Gadeberg | directed by Anders Thomas Jensen | 1 hr 56 mins | In Danish with English Subtitles |

Pierre Morrel’s Taken was a game-changer in how brutally effective a revenge thriller can be when it get stripped down to it’s most minimalist studs, containing only what it needs and nothing it doesn’t. With a strong lead and a merciless running time of 90 minutes, Taken inspired a decade of action movies that confused that minimalism for a license to get away with 1-dimensional characters and formulaic shows of bravado in our thrillers. All the promotional material, from the trailer to the poster to the summary, sell Riders of Justice like a movie where the always reliable Mads Mikkelsen steps into the Liam Neeson role as a dad, suited up in bomb squad fatigues, with a particular set of skills who goes on a revenge spree against a biker gang who killed his wife. It is so much better than that. It surprises at every fully fleshed out turn with rich characters and a smart script. This movie proves that  you can exchange efficiency for characters if those characters are as rich and fleshed out as this one. There is a lot of succulent meat on this bone.

Lennart (Lars Brygmann), is a statistician who finds himself in the middle of a tragic train accident that kills the wife of Markus (Mads Mikkelsen), sending the soldier home to care for his daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) while they both work through grief in their own way. Lennart learns that a trial witness against the Danish biker gang Riders of Justice was killed in the crash and discovers the accident was actually a well orchestrated hit. Teaming up with Markus, a hacker and a techie, the group sets out to deliver revenge on the gang.

Both classical in it’s approach to character building and a rarity now, as a thriller with a personality, Riders of Justice is also the last thing you’d describe most thrillers of the last decade – it’s delightful. But first the esoteric stuff. From Lennart’s characters obsessed with odds, convinced he’s cracked the case of a mob hit based on the statistical impossibility of a stranger throwing a full soda in the trash, to Mathilde’s stolen bicycle and wall of events leading up to her mother’s death – this movie smartly and thoroughly explores different ways that people attempt to find reason in tragedy. To find someone or something to blame, be in a biker gang or the fateful decision to sit or stand on a train. For his part Markus’ response is to stuff it down and not talk about it.

But Riders takes a hard left turn when the Danish system offers Markus and Mathilde a home counselor visit and Mathilde confuses the trio of tech henchmen setting up a revenge scheme in the garage for those grief counselors. Director Anders Thomas Jensen surprisingly builds the film out as a surrogate family story. Sitcom misunderstandings are cut through action scenes like a highlight single-take shoot-out where Mikkelsen guns down a group of thugs attempting a drive-by. A thrilling, well-staged level of carnage is also at play here, but with an ironic twist at the heart of it.

Riders of Justice is that rare gut-totting revenge thriller that attempts, and succeeds, at being something more. It does a lot and it flows it all together flawlessly without a mis-step in the tone. Rich, thoughtful, exciting, caring and even funny, Jensen’s movie effectively breaks out of it’s genre box to be not just a great action movie, but a great movie, period. It’s one of the best movies of the year.

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