Sometimes the numbers just don’t add up.
Comedy and revenge movie drama blend uneasily – but not entirely distastefully – in Riders of Justice, a new Danish feature from writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen (2005’s Adam’s Apples) and starring Mads Mikkelsen, now playing in recently-reopened Prague cinemas.
Riders of Justice stars Mikkelsen as Markus, a Danish soldier on duty in the Middle East who is called back home after a tragedy when his wife is killed in a train explosion, leaving teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) without a guardian.
Data analyst Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), meanwhile, happened to be on the same train as Markus’ wife – and even gave her his seat, inadvertently trading fates. Police label the train crash an unfortunate mishap, but Markus knows the data says otherwise: the presence of a witness set to testify against a biker gang on the train is too big of a coincidence to be just an accident.
Together with oddball friends and colleagues Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), Markus digs into the history of the witness, and also the identity of a mystery man on the train who threw away a full cup of juice and a sandwich as he exited the train shortly before the explosion occurred.
The trio discover that the witness suffered from OCD and compulsively sat in the same seat every day — and the mystery man just happens to be the brother of the leader of the biker gang (played by an under-utilized Roland Møller), who also just happens to have a background in locomotive engineering.
Unable to take their findings to police, they instead approach Markus. But by telling him that his wife’s death was no accident, they have little idea of the Pandora’s box they are opening by unleashing this hardened soldier on the men responsible for upending his life.
Going into Riders of Justice, one might expect a gritty revenge tale with Mikkelsen’s soldier in Liam Neeson mode as he avenges the murder of his wife. But the film dedicates just as much time to the bumbling trio of Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler as a kind of geek squad Three Stooges who are in way over their heads – but not exactly opposed to the idea of seeking vengeance on the murderous biker gang.
For much of Riders of Justice, writer-director Jensen manages to deftly balance an uneasy blend of offbeat comedy and gritty violence. This movie shouldn’t work as well as it does, and leans towards broad comedic elements a tad too much, but it’s entirely engaging through every scene.
As the body count piles up towards the end, however, Rider of Justice doesn’t exactly stick the landing. The action movie climax comes from the pen of a writer looking to tie up loose ends rather than letting the narrative evolve naturally, and the finale fails to provide the kind of practical (read: remotely realistic) conclusion that the procedural-style setup demands.
By that point, however, Riders of Justice will have won you over. This is high entertainment with a smoldering lead performance by Mikkelsen and scene-stealing work by Brygmann as Lennart, and an unusual perspective that keeps you on edge.
The key theme here, nicely expressed in a touching scene between Otto and Mathilde, is that while there is truth in data we often don’t have the ability to interpret it correctly. A nearly-infinite number of tiny events and choices led up to the fatal train crash in Riders of Justice and continue to tell the story of our lives, but neither the human mind nor the world’s most advanced computers are able to put everything together and make sense of it all.