With his drooping eyelids and aquiline nose, Mads Mikkelsen is often typecast by Hollywood as villains — surely you remember him hitting James Bond’s testicles repeatedly in Casino Royale. Yet this 55-year-old native of Copenhagen has far more range than that, as we saw in his gloriously hammered turn as an alcoholic schoolteacher in Another Round. His native country is willing to cast him as more rounded types, and we see this again in Riders of Justice, a revenge thriller that’s now playing at Grand Berry Theater (and on VOD this Friday) and is much weirder and funnier than most such movies that Hollywood gives us.
On a crowded train in Copenhagen, mathematician Otto Hoffmann (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) graciously offers his seat to a mother traveling with her teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). A few seconds later, a collision kills the mother and 10 others sitting on that side of the train. Her husband is a Royal Danish Army officer named Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) who is recalled from his tour of duty in Afghanistan. While he’s back home, Otto comes to him with his theory that the accident was in fact an attack aimed at one of the other victims, an informant who was set to testify against a biker gang calling themselves Riders of Justice. Markus has told Mathilde that her mother’s death was meaningless, but he’s all too happy to jump aboard a revenge quest, especially since he has fighting skills that Otto and his math geek friends lack.
Markus has rage issues which seem to have festered before his wife’s death. What’s funny is that the film surrounds this anger-management case with so many insufferable know-it-alls, not just the numbers guys but also a parade of psychiatrists and priests who are in love with the sound of their own voices as they mouth platitudes at Markus. Mathilde’s teenage boyfriend (Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt) takes it upon himself to lecture Markus on his parenting, which buys him a black eye. Markus’ tough-guy presence is something that everybody ignores even when he threatens to kill them. He actually does snap a witness’ neck before the man can give them any information, and Otto’s friends (Lars Brygmann and Nicolas Bro) are so busy arguing the statistical probability of being caught that they fail to notice the naked man (Gustav Lindh) who’s bound and gagged on the dead man’s sofa.
Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen (who penned the Oscar-winning In a Better World) balances the humor with some nicely turned action set pieces, as the Riders try to kill Markus and his friends in a drive-by shooting. As it starts to look like the math geeks’ wacky conspiracy theory might actually be true, Markus’ mission keeps adding more participants and widening out to target more people. The humor is often in this jet-black vein, with the math geeks turning out to be better parents to Mathilde than Markus. The aforementioned naked guy — a Ukrainian sex slave who’s freed when the protagonist kills his master — discusses incredibly inappropriate topics with her at dinner. All this hilarity is shot through with loss, pain, and grief at the coldness of a random universe, and when Markus finally faces the consequences of his actions, Mikkelsen makes it truly shattering. Even Otto’s insistence that there are no coincidences turns out to be grounded in a previous tragedy that he brought on himself. The film is bookended by a subplot about an Estonian girl (Marta Riisalu) whose request for a blue bike instead of a red one sets a chain of murderous events in motion that she’ll never know about. The final shot of her joyfully riding her blue bike around her block in Tallinn on Christmas morning is an indelible way to end this thoughtful and subversive thriller.
Riders of Justice
Starring Mads Mikkelsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas. Written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen. Not rated.