A soldier returns home early from deployment after receiving the tragic news that his wife was killed in a train accident. That doesn’t sound like the kind of premise you would go into expecting a laugh. Yet there is a wild black comedy edge to the Danish film “Riders of Justice” that’s sure to catch a lot of viewers off-guard. But there’s a lot more to writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen’s surprisingly dense and thematically rich story.
From his earliest scenes we get a sense that there is much more to Jensen’s film and his characters. The ever-watchable Mads Mikkelson plays Markus Hansen who returns from active duty in Afghanistan to be with his daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) following the death of his wife Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind). She and ten other people were killed during a city train accident that officials attribute to a collision with an oncoming train.
We begin to learn more about Markus once he’s home with Mathilde. Both father and daughter are in their own personal states of shock. Mathilde feels the need to express her pain. She wants them to see a family grief counselor and ponders God’s reasons for tragedy. Markus keeps everything pent up. He balks at the idea of therapy or a supernatural purpose. So he withdraws into his own anger, bitterness, denial, and remorse. He grows cold and detached, content to bury his pain rather than cope with it. It makes him appear harsh and indifferent which fractures his relationship with Mathilde even more. Soon her biggest fear is becoming like her father.
A few days later a man named Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) shows up at Markus’ door with information about Emma’s death. Otto, a recently fired data analyst, was on the train and claims the incident was no accident; that it was actually an orchestrated hit meant to kill a key witness set to testify against the leader of a violent biker gang known as the Riders of Justice. Otto along with his batty yet brilliant associate Lennart (Lars Brygmann) lay out their highly detailed discovery built on calculations, probabilities, and quite a few illegally hacked documents and surveillance footage. The cops were quick to dismiss Otto’s suspicions, but for Markus it’s an opportunity to release his pain through vengeance.
The movie’s wacky balance of dark comedy and darker human drama is mostly seen in the relationships between Markus and the trio of Otto, Lennart, and facial recognition specialist named Emmenther (Nicolas Bro). Together the three tech-buddies bring back memories of Byers, Langly and Frohike aka The Lone Gunmen of X-Files fame. But they are more than comic relief and each are imbued with certain layers of humanity. This is especially true for Otto who, in addition to his own personal baggage, is burdened with survivor’s guilt over Emma’s death. In an act of courtesy he gave her his seat on the side of the train that took the brunt of the impact. And being a man obsessed with details, data and calculations, he can’t get over feeling that he should have seen it coming.
The group’s dogged hunt for answers combined with Markus’ revenge-driven bloodlust takes them down a dark and violent path. But through it all Jensen never loses focus of his central themes or his characters. They always stay front and center. And as you would expect, Mikkelsen’s brilliance as an actor is on full display. He delivers a strikingly multifaceted performance that sees him play a ruthless vigilante, a classic comedy straight man, a broken and emotionally fragile father and more.
While the black comedy element is one of the film’s strengths, it’s also one of its weaknesses. There are a few times where Jensen pushes the humor a little too far leading to some unfortunate clashes in tone. Even worse, there were a couple of instances where the film’s desire for laughs undercuts a would-be emotionally powerful moment. Yet Jensen always manages to get back on track with his deep and textured story and its myriad of interests. Yes, the movie has good action, good laughs and a steely, grizzled Mikkelsen. But it’s the attention it gives to its themes (coping with death and loss, making sense of tragedy, coincidence versus fate) that really sets the movie apart. “Riders of Justice” releases in theaters in NY and LA on May 14th and everywhere on May 21st.
VERDICT – 4 STARS