Revenge movies usually come in two flavors. You’ve got the John Wick type, where the bad guys are unremittingly bad and definitely have it coming to them, or you’ve got the Unforgiven type, where we’re meant to understand that it’s morally slippery to seek vengeance — an eye for an eye only leaves the whole world blind, as the old cliché goes. But a Danish film that flew under the radar earlier this year offers a novel new way of thinking of the revenge drama. It’s called Riders of Justice, it stars Internet Boyfriend No. 39 Mads Mikkelsen, and it’s now streaming on Hulu.
The movie’s setup sounds like a bad Liam Neeson action-thriller. Mikkelsen plays Markus, an elite soldier stationed in the Middle East who’s summoned back to Denmark because of terrible news: His wife Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind) and teen daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) were on a train that crashed, killing Emma. Markus has often been gone because of his job, but now he has to be home for Mathilde, whom he doesn’t have a close bond with. She’s understandably devastated at the loss of her mother, but Markus is more stoic. She thinks he needs therapy, someone to talk to. Markus thinks that’s all nonsense: What’s done is done, and there’s nothing to be said about it.
That’s when he’s approached by Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Lennart (Lars Brygmann), nerdy friends who work in probability who have an unexpected connection to Emma: Otto was on the same train, and he gave up his seat to the deceased. (If he hadn’t been chivalrous, it would have been him that died.) Assisted by their pal Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), an expert computer hacker, they discover that the train crash wasn’t an accident — it had been rigged in order to kill a man on board who would have testified against a dangerous gang, the Riders of Justice. Partly to assuage his own guilt, partly because he wants to see the bad guys go to jail, Otto brings this information to Markus. Otto and his pal are puny mortals, but Markus — well, Markus is an elite soldier. He can actually do something about this.
Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen is a filmmaker who’s not well-known in America, but his movies tend to bounce between genres and tones. You’re never quite sure what you’re getting with him, which I mean as a compliment, and that’s certainly true with Riders of Justice, which is a revenge thriller but also a hangout movie and a film about grief. Riders of Justice features some un-PC humor but also a thoughtful rumination on the mysterious ways in which coincidence rules our lives — so much so that, if you spent too much time thinking about it, you would go insane. Both philosophical and violent, the film is hardly a male savior action-thriller. Quite the contrary, among the movie’s best qualities, Jensen inserts a sly interrogation of revenge films — and of the strong, solitary type that often inhabits them. Quite literally, Markus would rather kill a bunch of people instead of going to therapy.
Riders of Justice is a slow-burn drama, without much action in its first third, which allows Jensen to establish his characters and this cosmic notion that simple twists of fate occur every day without our noticing it. (The film opens with a completely random girl wanting a very specific bike for Christmas. That unique bike is stolen off the street — we find out later that it’s Mathilde’s, which causes Emma to have to drive her to school that day, except her car isn’t starting, so they decide to take the train, which is the only reason they were on it the day of the fateful crash.)
Mostly, though, the film’s subdued opening is meant to embed us in the closed-off mindset of Mikkelsen’s character. Ever since his breakout role in Casino Royale, the actor has been a beloved onscreen presence, earning acclaim and internet fixation thanks to Hannibal and the Oscar-winning Another Round. Mikkelsen and Jensen have worked together several times, and he easily conveys Markus’ reigned-in sadness. (Even with his hair shorn and his intimidating physique, Mikkelsen can’t hide those melancholy, world-weary eyes of his.) The more that Markus tries to change the subject about not needing professional help — the more he tries to dutifully man up — the more obvious it becomes that he’s holding onto old ideas about what it means to be strong. Well, if he’s doing that for his daughter, she’s not impressed — if anything, it only reminds Mathilde of the sensitive, caring parent that she lost.
Instead of talking about his feelings, Markus launches into action, joined by Otto and his pals as he seeks out members of Riders of Justice — specifically, their kingpin, ultra-evil Kurt (Roland Møller), whose brother spearheaded the train crash. Kurt’s a bad dude who needs to go down, but his goons are well-armed, so it won’t be easy. And while Jensen keeps the action sequences realistic — this isn’t John Wick, where the stunts are gloriously over-the-top — we quickly see how efficient a fighting machine Markus is. Earlier in Riders of Justice, the guys ask him if he’s ever had to kill someone on the battlefield. Markus doesn’t answer, but we get our answer soon enough — the man’s a master at it.
Although Riders of Justice is mostly his story, the film is sneaky enough to show how Markus’ dorky chums are, in their own way, trying to work through things by tagging along with him. They aren’t very manly — and at least one of them is hiding a shameful secret — but by living vicariously through Markus’ ass-kicking greatness, for a brief moment they can feel tough, too. One of the movie’s funnier unspoken jokes is that this is essentially a Mission: Impossible movie if Tom Cruise’s whole team was nothing but Benjis — and not the cool Benji from Fallout but the ineffectual nerd of the earlier films. Even so, they end up having more to offer Markus than brain power. Otto (for reasons that become clearer later in the movie) has spent thousands of hours in therapy, and he picks up Mathilde’s cause, insisting that Markus talk to a psychiatrist so that he can properly process Emma’s death. Markus still doesn’t want to listen — leading to one of Riders of Justice’s darker comedic moments — but, eventually, he will.
There’s a nice twist that happens about two-thirds of the way through the film that I don’t want to spoil, but I’ll say that it enlarges this whole notion of coincidence — and also highlights the ulterior motives that are often driving characters in revenge movies. It’s very easy to cheer on the good guy in these types of films. Something terrible has happened to them — we want them to get justice, to be made whole again. But life isn’t like the movies, and Riders of Justice isn’t like most revenge movies. By not talking about the thing that’s bothering you — by just springing into action instead — you can sometimes make things worse. In Riders of Justice, Markus getting that ends up being a lot more important than getting Kurt.