Brutal, sad, funny, and disarmingly sweet-natured, “Riders of Justice” is not so much a revenge movie as a movie about revenge. That might seem like a distinction without a difference until you get to the end of this surprising feature from writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen (“After the Wedding,” “Red Road,” “The Salvation“) and look back on every place that it has taken you.
The story starts a few days before Christmas in Estonia, where a girl walking along a holiday-decorated street with her grandfather spots a red bicycle offered for sale by a street vender and asks for a blue one instead, at which point the vendor—part of a crime ring—calls a criminal associate, who steals a blue one that belongs to Mathilde (Andreas Heicke Gadeberg), which leads her mother Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind) to pick her up at a train station, only to have their car fail to start, which leads to them take a commuter train home. A statistics and probability expert named Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) gives the girl’s mother his seat on the train, and shortly after that, a freight train smashes into the commuter train and several passengers are killed, including Mathilde’s mother and a tattooed, bald, scowling fellow who was supposed to testify against a fearsome gang, Riders of Justice. Otto saw another man get off the train right before the crash, oddly dropping a full beverage and a nearly uneaten sandwich in the train, and becomes convinced that the crash was actually an assassination, which in turn would mean that all of the people killed on the train, including Mathilde’s mother, were collateral damage. As it happens, Mathilde’s mother is a stony-faced solder named Markus (Mads Mikkelsen, a frequent leading man for the writer-director), and it doesn’t take much for him to be convinced that vengeance is not only justified but required.
If this were almost any other movie, you’d be able to write the rest of this review yourself. But from the tone of the early scenes, which generously make room for grace notes of characterization and performance and allow the characters to get sidetracked into what only seem like irrelevant side discussions, you figure out that this is no ordinary example of a genre programmer that’s mainly interested in finding inventive ways to put viewers through the paces they expect.
For one thing, Jensen makes Otto not the messenger who sets the plot in motion, but part of a trio that includes a fellow probability expert named Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and a tightly wound, often volatile computer hacker named Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), written and performed with such skill that they become a classic comedy trio: essentially the intellectual, university-pedigreed answer to the Three Stooges. Like Mathilde, Markus and everyone else that passes in front of Jensen’s viewfinder, these three men are given complex and ultimately endearing backstories that not only inoculate them against any perception of being standard-issue “action film sidekicks,” but feed into the film’s sincere fascination with questions of fate, luck, chance, justice, karma, and other subjects rarely discussed in films where the hero is a frowny-faced bald dude who can snap a man’s neck like a shingle.
“All events are products of a series of preceding events,” Otto tells an assembled panel of corporate clients who ultimately reject an algorithm that he and Lennart are trying to sell them. “Because we often have insufficient data, we categorize events as coincidences.” This statement echoes through many subsequent scenes, including the church service at which Mathilde’s mother and Markus’s wife is laid to rest. “When miracles happen,” the priest says, “we often attribute a divine character to them. However, when lightning strikes, when tragedy becomes reality, we have a hard time assigning a return address, and thus we refer to it as coincidence.” Once the Stooges enter Markus’ life, bloodshed inevitably follows, but not in a lockstep, predictable way, owing to the pinball-machine collisions of the various personalities involved (in particularly Markus’s; he’s both deadly and volatile, not a great combination when you’re trying to carry out a methodical plan).
Naturally, the really big question here is whether the train crash was a premeditated crime or merely the culmination of a series of things that quite simply happened, no more and no less. A large part of the charm of “Riders of Justice” (what an ironic title, in retrospect!) comes from the way that it keeps us guessing as to what side of the equation, so to speak, it’ll finally come down on, or whether it’ll take a position at all. What are we to make, for instance, of a seemingly exact calculation by Otto that the odds of that crash taking out both the hero’s wife and the star witness in a gang trial are 234,287,121 to one? Or, for that matter, the film’s subtle, mordant awareness that no matter how bad things get, they can always get worse? “Only thing is, after all this crap, it’s unlikely more is going to happen,” Mathilde tells Otto. “That’s not how things work,” Otto replies. “A lot of awful things can happen in your life.”
Plots like the one that drive this film tend to appear in crash-and-burn action thrillers wherein an early death or atrocity is mainly there to give the hero (or heroes) a pretext to embark on a spectacular and largely guilt-free rampage, stacking up bodies like firewood. Jensen and his cast and crew go in a different direction, creating a cast of main characters (and several colorful minor characters) with complex, contradictory psychologies that are unveiled a layer at a time, and that always inform our understanding of what they did in a prior scene, or what they may be capable of later on.
Not only are there no easy answers to be had, the movie goes out of its way to make you think that it’s going to offer at least one of them, only to confound you by instead asking, “What might actually happen if these characters actually existed?” Any one of these characters could’ve been the lead in a movie, so attentive is the screenplay to the nuances of personality. “Did a therapist write this?” is not a sentence once expects to see in one’s notes on a movie where Mads Mikkelsen guns men down with an assault rifle. But it’s consistent with the apparent mission statement of this odd, beguiling film, which is filled with philosophical, theological, moral, and ethical notions (and takes care to distinguish between them) and that threads images of churches and snippets of religious chorales throughout its running time, as if to remind us of the Christian ideals of grace, forgiveness, and redemption that, for many characters, remain tantalizingly out of reach.
The movie is also worth seeing as a showcase for great actors tearing into material worthy of their talents. Mikkelsen seems a granite-faced question mark until you spend a bit of time with his character and understand the origins of his stoicism. Unexpected connection points are made between him and the Stooges, and more pointedly, between Mathilde and Emmenthaler (who are both sensitive about their weight) and Mathilde, Otto and Markus (who have a particular sort of loss in common, and seem to fill voids in one another’s lives). Emmenthaler, particularly, is one of the great secondary characters in action thriller history, right up there with Al Powell from the original “Die Hard“—a sensitive man who sheds a single, angry tear when a friend makes fun of his weight, and who has clearly been carrying an around an unexploded bomb of suppressed rage throughout his life. When it becomes clear that vengeance is not only necessary but likely, he’s the first one to ask for weapons training.
But even that subplot doesn’t go the way you might anticipate, because this is a rare genre picture in which the action seems to be driven by characterization rather than the other way around. The movie’s contextual scaffolding is constructed with such care that when a character says that chess is the only game ever invented where luck isn’t a factor, your instinct is to think, “Is that true?” It is, and it isn’t. The closest Jensen gets to summing it all up is Mathilde’s weary yet open-minded statement that life “is just easier when there’s someone you can get mad at.” And what are we left with? In the best of all possible worlds, a line from Otto, offered when the gang is en route to a bloody showdown: “Let’s get this over with as a team so we can go home and eat banana cake.”