Revenge is not the most original theme for a film or for fiction in general. It actually dates back to ancient Greece and probably further. Over the last few years of film though, it has been especially popular, to say the least. Keanu Reeve’s John Wick films have elevated his career to an all-time high status, A Promising Young Woman earned itself some much-deserved Oscar love, and Liam Neeson’s Taken films are now part of the pop culture lexicon. Even though it seems like the them should have worn out its, it proves to be one we do not mind revisiting. Maybe it the thrill of the temporary escape or perhaps they satisfy a little bit of vicarious wish-fulfillment.
In the new Anders Thomas Jensen film Riders of Justice starring Mads Mikkelsen we expect to a rather typical addition to the revenge category. But along the way film subverts expectations to deliver something much more layered and thoroughly satisfying. Those coming to see mindless ass-kicking, go elsewhere – this film is surprisingly cerebral.
The plot revolves around an explosion on a train that kills the wife of Markus (a fantastic Mads Mikkelson) who leaves the war front to take care of his daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) who survived the incident. He is approached by some statisticians who want to help him track down the bomber so he can extract revenge. The trio consists of Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmanthaler (Nicholas Bro) are relative unknowns in the US, but all have a long lists of Danish film credits and with good reason, we find out. Markus begins giving them military training to prepare them for what may become a very dangerous situation.
These stat geeks initially seem to be heading toward cliches territory, offer much more, becoming well developed and ultimately sympathetic characters instead of just comic relief you would expect. Do not get me wrong they provide the vast majority of the films humor, but they are critical to the narrative and emotional development of the film. As they prepare to seek out the man suspected of blowing up the train, an unexpected run-in with Mathilde forces them to, quite awkwardly, hide their identities. What results is a found family of sorts with conversations that reveal much more emotionally complex characters than you would expect from this type of film.
The film balances dark comedy and softer moments. Like sea salt that brings out the sweetness or a caramel – each enhance the other. That’s not to say there is not action, because there certainly is. Violent action scenes will get your pulse racing but never hijack the emotional core of the film. At the end of the day this is a family film, a dysfunctional family, but still a family. The real focus is on the characters who all have tragedy and pain in their lives.
If this was a typical action thriller I probably would have gotten bored quickly. As is, after the first quarter of the film I was checking my watch thinking I knew what to expect. Then things start to click when the statisticians team up with Mads and bring with them a lot of humor and surprising depth. I was locked in on these characters and that only grew stronger as as we learn their moving backstories. It is part father daughter drama, part comedy, part action thriller and even more.
Mikkelsen is delivers, as always. Its a Mads Mads Mads world after all. Even with his distinct looks and piercing eyes he is a chameleon. And, I am not talking about the big bushy beard he is sporting here. While he is a man of few words here – his delivery and mannerisms are in such contrast from his work in Another Round it would be believable to think they two different actors.
It is surprising to say that Mads is not the real draw here. The Three Stooges of statisticians are the reason enough to see the film. Their bickering was amusing with the natural feel of old college friends endlessly teasing and getting on each other’s cases. But there is more to them, a depth that creeps up on you with surprising impact. Gadeberg’s performance as Mathilde is also quite stellar. the film hinges on the tonal balancing act – if one of these performances ends up not feeling genuine the film falls apart.
The end results is a film that resonates longer and hits at more emotional levels than you would expect. That is what most impressive with Jensen’s direction, he handles the major tonal shifts without ever losing control of the narrative or characters. Just when you think you knew what you were going there’s a major shift introducing new aspects of the story. It would be quite dark and serious and minutes later I was laughing out loud. What should not work, does. Jensen boldly helms ‘Riders’ with confidence.
Jeppe Kaas score has just as many big swings in tone as the rest of the film, big lounf and bold to a calm choral tune, even some Christmas music. Cinematographer Kasper Tuxen uses the camera to examine the characters rather than the violence, avoiding it from becoming graphic – a decision that serves this balancing act quite well.
Jensen unfolds his characters with nuance and restraint providing an unexpected depth that will made this very moving and certainly a film you will want to revisit. In addition to all the aspects already touched upon there are also discussions of faith and science that bring a whole other level to the film. Riders of Justice will be one of those smaller film that people will discover and talk about for years to come. When a film has your heart racing one minute, makes you laugh out loud the next and then has you almost in tears… it’s either you need some medication or you found something special. In this case, it’s the latter. Take this ride
‘Riders of Justice’ is much more than a revenge film. It is a unique combination omedy/drama/action that delivers on several levels while being thoroughly entertaining.