A Danish action film starts out looking like just another revenge drama, but then pulls the rug out from under the audience in a delightful way.
It’s fairly easy to describe a revenge-themed action thriller. First an evil criminal does something terrible, hurting innocent people, so the action hero takes justice into his own hands to make the evil guy pay. Often it’s the hero’s loved ones or family members that are killed or put in harm’s way, so the need for revenge is even more dramatic. This is the template for a seemingly endless series of violent movies, which allow audiences to vicariously enjoy the punishment that really bad people deserve. Simple, right? So I thought—until I watched Riders of Justice, a new film by Danish writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen. It pulled me in with its revenge-themed premise, flavored with a bit of mystery, but then totally surprised me.
A mother and her teenage daughter board a commuter train. A statistics expert named Otto, who happens to also be on the train, gives up his seat to the mother, but then there’s a terrible crash, and the mother is killed. Otto later sees the teenage girl, Mathilde, in the hospital, in shock getting the news of her mother’s death, and he feels stricken with guilt. He should have been in her mother’s seat, but his polite gesture doomed her.
Otto, played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, in line with his expertise in statistics and probability, is obsessed with the millions of little causes that go into the occurrence of every event in this life, and in this case he sees past the official report, which rules that the crash is an accident. On the train, he had noticed a bald menacing looking man with a tattoo on his face, and after the crash he learns from news reports that this man, who was also killed, was a gangster scheduled to testify against the leader of a vicious criminal outfit called Riders of Justice. Otto also had noticed another man acting suspiciously before suddenly leaving the train, right before the crash. Otto calculates that the combination of all these factors defies probability, and that this wasn’t an accident, but an assassination. He goes to the police, but they think he’s nuts, so he recruits a couple of his geek friends, a neurotic probability expert and an angry, overweight computer guy, to help him solve the crime. Inspired by his guilt about the death of the woman to whom he gave up his seat, Otto finds out where her daughter lives, and that her father is a soldier who’s come home from overseas to take care of her. They meet with the father to tell him about what they suspect. And here we meet our action hero—Markos, a stoic bad ass killing machine played by Denmark’s most famous actor, now an international star, Mads Mikkelson.
This is as far as I can take you into the plot without spoiling it. The first surprising thing, in a film with such a grim premise, is how wickedly funny it gets. This is mainly due to the nerdy trio of investigators, whose personality quirks and constant bickering are hilarious. Secondly, the story actually becomes philosophical, and in a thoroughly plausible and convincing way. What is the relationship between the myriad causes that led up to the tragedy, and what we think of as coincidence? Do events have an ultimate meaning or not? The film also explores grief, and the danger of trying to go through it without help. Jensen has crafted the script so skillfully that we find ourselves absorbed in the personal issues and quests of the characters rather than just the plot.
Meanwhile, Markus, our super soldier hero, does start to wreak havoc against the bad guys. But plot twists start to throw everything we’ve been assuming into doubt. This supposed revenge film ends up making us question the worth of the very idea of revenge. In addition to being an exciting action film in its own right, with its share of violence of course, and with an anarchic sense of humor, Riders of Justice takes us to an emotionally moving resolution.