Riders of Justice review – Mads Mikkelsen revenge thriller turns screwball

Anders Thomas Jensen’s film is far-fetched, tonally wayward and shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it all comes together

The poster image of a grey-bearded, shaven-headed, tooled-up, mean-looking Mads Mikkelsen, combined with that title, might set alarm bells ringing … along the lines of, “Oh no, he’s doing a Taken.” Blessedly, rather than giving us a straightahead middle-aged revenge thriller, this unpredictable Danish film takes apart the whole trope. There are action thrills, to be sure, but they are folded into what becomes a sort of group therapy session on the psychology of grief, guilt, vengeance, chance and coincidence. Even more blessedly, it’s often hilarious.

Mikkelsen plays Markus, a military commander who is recalled from Afghanistan when his wife is killed in a train crash. He might have a particular set of skills, as Liam Neeson would put it, but emotional intelligence is not one of them. Markus refuses counselling and struggles to connect with his teenage daughter. Fortunately, along comes Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a maths geek who happened to be on the same train as Markus’s wife. He is accompanied by eccentric sidekicks Lennart (Lars Brygmann), and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). They are convinced the crash was not an accident but a targeted killing connected to a violent biker gang.

Suddenly these men have a mission, with Mikkelsen’s alpha male at the sharp end and the three delta males as his tech support. But things don’t pan out as expected. The plan rapidly spirals out of control; meanwhile the three geeks become almost in-house counsellors to Markus and his daughter. “I’ve had over 4,000 hours of therapy,” boasts Lennart. The screwball caper plot (written by director Anders Thomas Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel) is so far-fetched and tonally wayward, it shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it all comes together, almost in Coen brothers style. There’s a sincere empathy for these damaged characters, and intelligent musings on fate, coincidence and trauma, all helped down by some delightfully absurd and audacious comedy.

• Riders of Justice is released on 23 July in cinemas.


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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