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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Riders of Justice (2021)

Updated: May 22, 2021

Anders Thomas Jensen returns to the director’s chair six years after his absolutely bizarre piece of absurdist black comedy Men and Chicken with the action-comedy thriller Riders of Justice. It may be a lot more accessible than his last film, but it still exhibits the quirks and ticks of unique characters and interesting plot developments that make him such a fun filmmaker to keep tabs on.

Vengeance is a theme not uncommon in movies. Hell, it’s one of the most effective and undeniably gripping pieces of motivation for characters in many great films, books, plays, TV series, games, songs, etc. But lately, the market has been saturated with them, mostly thanks to sequels squeezing every last drop they can out of exhausted ideas and losing sight of their original intentions (*ahem* John Wick, *ahem* Taken). So it’s refreshing when something like Riders of Justice comes along and stakes its claim among great vengeance films of the past 20 years that has a heart beating at the very center of the bloody mayhem one expects from the genre.

Deployed soldier Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) returns home to raise his teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) after his wife dies in a train accident. However, Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a survivor of the incident, suspects foul play and approaches Markus to inform him of this. From there, Markus goes on a mission to avenge his wife’s death, and with the help of Otto, he ropes in fellow weirdos Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) to help him find the people responsible.

On the surface, it appears that Riders of Justice is yet another copy/paste revenge actioner we have seen so many times before, but what separates it from the colder exteriors of the Takens, the John Wicks and now the Nobodys (review over here), is that it has heart. It has a soul beneath the surface level conflict that so easily could’ve just been explosions, car chases, cool fights and loads of bullets among the bloodied corpses. Riders of Justice has a lot of those things, but it ends up identifying as an introspective buddy comedy instead.

Riders of Justice isn’t afraid to play with commonly used tropes within the revenge subgenre, especially ones that have been successful in the past. The ‘getting the team together’ setup is often always the funnest aspect of any action movie, so it’s no different here. Mixing oddball personalities with the more normal characters is a trope that is often used because it works. It adds a sense of fun into the mix, allowing for us to identify with specific characters and satisfy our desire for comradery when the events of the plot finally binds them together. However, it’s a trope that is often misused. Adding too many players in a limited running time can also restrict your chances in exploring each character, effectively demoting potentially interesting and important figures into mere background extras who don't have much to add to proceedings other than a specifically handy skill for a specific moment in the film. Giant ensembles in the comic book movie world for example, often find themselves struggling to fine-tune the balance (although MCU has managed to flesh out characters thanks to their massive release slates). Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But Riders of Justice plays it smart, utilizing a small group of four, each one with their own strengths and idiosyncrasies that will eventually have them changing for the better. Markus is the hard-boiled military man, Otto is the numbers guy, Lennart is the hacker and Emmanthaler is the tech-wiz.

As mentioned before, Riders of Justice could’ve settled with being nothing more than a cause and effect revenge brawler with its action set-pieces as its selling point. Instead, Riders of Justice is a far deeper affair, prioritizing character development and dissecting themes and ideas of grief, the need to belong, and finally, acceptance. The action set-pieces are great, but the real highlight in Riders of Justice is the dialogue and chemistry between each actor, with Jensen’s strength of dark, oddball humour evolving organically throughout. Markus, although a highly skilled and hard as nails soldier, appears to be the most normal of the bunch. But the more we see him struggling to relate with each person around him and most particularly his daughter, we understand that he is an outcast just like the rest of them, with their relatable and often heartbreaking life experiences helping him finally accept the reality of his situation and what he needs to do in order to really be there for his daughter. Each character is so cleverly written and portrayed in order for Markus to understand this, and although he is the central character of the conflict brewing in Riders of Justice (on paper at least), every single one of them feels as though they share the same soul and understanding, they just never knew how to communicate it. We see ourselves in each one of them, understanding their irrational anxieties and their inability to truly fit in.

Mikkelsen, as usual, is outstanding as Markus. His character is the most serious of the lot in terms of dialogue and overall feel, but he sets the initial tone spectacularly as he brims with a silent rage fighting to break free from his often cold exterior. He is a deeply flawed and complex hero that makes him all the more compelling as the central character, and with Mikkelsen’s outrageous range as an actor being able to tap into the darkest parts of a character’s psyche, he adds an extra element of depth to a genre that can get complacent in developing its protagonist effectively. Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Otto is equally as phenomenal, counter-balancing Markus’ silent hard-nosed fury with a far more sensitive portrayal of a character just wanting to help a family come to terms with their grief and move on. Each character often steps on each other’s toes, but that’s what makes the dynamic between all of them so enthralling. Each one of them brings a specific skill to the group, but most importantly, they bring their own personal demons and insecurities on board with them. Jensen manages to let each character fully develop and reveal more about themselves through smartly written dialogue and precisely choreographed scenes that let the chemistry and strength of each actor take their characters to special places. They may not see it at first, but they need each other in order to grow. This lets the act of revenge take a much-needed backseat while they finally confront their own flaws they have been desperately trying to avoid all their lives.

Riders of Justice is funny, touching and exhilarating with an ensemble at the very top of their game. Anders Thomas Jensen returns back to his best, expertly balancing humour, drama and tense action into a film that never finds itself stalling or losing focus of the deeper ideas and themes found beneath its simple concept.

Where you can watch it: Most VOD platforms (USA)

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