Set in Denmark, Riders of Justice follows Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), who suffers an incredible loss when her mother is killed in a train crash. When her father, Markus (Mads Mikkelson) hears about the incident, he immediately returns home to be with his daughter. As they grieve together, they are surprised when Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) arrives on their doorstep, claiming that he doesn’t believe the crash was an accident. Obsessed with details and the logistics of probability, Otto is certain that the event is tied directly to notorious street gang, the Riders of Justice. Teaming up with two other oddballs (Lars Brygmann and Nicolas Bro), Markus sets out to exact revenge on those who took his wife from him.
Written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, Riders of Justice genuinely surprises the viewer. Though the concept will draw comparisons to other masculine revenge films, Jensen adds philosophical undertones and humour to a film which could have simply become generic in execution. As a result, Riders becomes much more than just violent entertainment. It becomes an exploration of grief and emotional freedom.
What is not surprising is Mikkelson. In every role he pursues, Mikkelson feels present and gives his all, even when the material is lacking. In Riders, he has some genuine material to work with, especially as the film moves on. Best known for playing characters with a dark edge, Mikkelson balances Markus’ rage with a dry humour that helps the character feel more fully realized. What’s more, Lie Kaa, Brygmann and Bro serve as excellent foils for Mikkelson’s more straight-laced approach, making for some genuinely funny banter along the way.
Broken by the loss of his wife, Markus is prepared to go on a murderous rampage to even the score. Though told by many that he needs to deal with his grief in a healthier way, he is simply consumed with rage. Convinced that her death was more than a coincidence, he sets out to get his revenge. To Markus, everything has to have an explanation and he’s willing to hold those who are responsible accountable for their actions. (This belief is reinforced by his conversations with Otto who argues that any event can be predicted with the proper data and mathematical information.)
Though Markus and his crew are determined to prove the reasons behind his wife’s death, questions begin to arise whether that can ever be truly known. For Markus, calculations and certainty make his grief palatable. To know there’s a reason is to believe that his trauma makes some form of sense. Cause means that there is someone to blame. However, as questions about coincidences arise, Markus must actually face his beliefs about whether or not ‘everything happens for a reason’.
It’s this conversation that sets Riders apart from so many other films. Unlike other franchises like John Wick, Taken or Nobody where men justify their loss down the barrel of a gun, Riders of Justice actually leans into the questions of Markus’ pain. (Interestingly, it’s worth noting Markus’ journey feels remarkably similar to the Biblical story of Job who, after losing his wife and children tragically, is left to grapple with the meaning of life. Beginning with a tragic loss, Ridersseems to mirror some of the key story elements of this famed tale, including the three advisors who challenge Markus’ coping process.) In Riders, the world doesn’t always make sense. Suffering exists but cannot always be explained.
In Riders, sometimes the questions are the answers.
As a result, Riders suggests that true justice doesn’t necessarily require retribution. This is not to say that there isn’t substantial action within the film, especially it’s explosive finale. However, it’s the conversations that take place between these moments that make Riders of Justice so unique. While he could have taken the far easier (and more popular) route of mere R-rated vengeance onscreen, Jensen adds some genuine moral complexity to its violence that elevates the material. While this may not satisfy those who are looking merely for a night of explosive action, it certainly makes Riders a much better film that’s worth watching.
Riders of Justice is available in theatres on Friday, May 21st, 2021.