Anders Thomas Jensen is amazingly prolific. Riders of Justice (Retfærdighedens ryttere in the original Danish) may be only his fifth film as a director in 22 years but in that time he’s also written around 40 feature-length movies. You might have seen Brothers (starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman), or the underrated western Salvation (Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffery Dean Morgan) or After the Wedding (Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Billy Crudup).
All his directorial efforts to date have starred Mads Mikkelsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, four of the five have feature Nicolas Bro, fabulous actors all. They’re joined this time by another real talent, Lars Brygmann, for another exercise in the incredibly odd, as Jensen’s last film also was.
Men & Chicken was a kind of incredibly weird gothic comedy, with Mikkelsen starring as a compulsive masturbator who turns out to be part animal, or something. Riders of Justice starts out like a Christmas movie, and might, underneath it all, be a homage to Die Hard done as a bit of a joke, the joke being that if Die Hard is a Christmas movie (as many people insist), then how about this?
There’s a twin track thing going on. On one is Mikkelsen as a silent and deadly soldier called home when his wife dies in a train accident which has also injured his daughter. The accident was no accident, it turns out, and so off Markus (Mikkelsen) sets on a revenge jag conducted with a minimum of messing about, barely a word spoken, with no time for sentiment of any sort, even for his grieving daughter, who, sweetie that she is, is worried about her bottled-up dad. On the other track we have a comedy in which Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro and Lars Brygmann play three incredibly spoddy, verbose and cowardly nerds determined to prove, using statistics, which they venerate like a deity, that the “accident” was in fact an assassination hit on a witness who was about to testify against biker gang the Riders of Justice.
Even though they provide us with the title, the Riders of Justice have no real bearing on the plot. They are just bad guys wheeled on and off at various times. Adding a bit of flavour to Markus’s unlikely grouping of brute and milquetoasts are Gustav Lindh as a rent boy specialising in S&M and Albert Rudbeck Lindhart as daughter Mathilde’s woke emo boyfriend, who Markus introduces himself to with a punch that would cause fracturing.
“You get the info, I”ll handle the rest,” says Markus at one point, in what is a lot of words for him. And that’s the film in a soundbite. They do their thing, he does his. Imagine Markus as a Liam Neeson in Taken mode, the three guys as the Three Stooges and you’re about 90 per cent there.
This unlikely alliance – the badass and the saddos – are paperclipped together by Jensen using both parties’ shared interest in the rational. The three guys love figures; Markus is a hyper-rationalist with no time for his feelings. No, it’s a bit of a nonsense scriptwriter’s contrivance designed to make the impossible somehow possible, but it just about works, though the film is at its best when it throws logic to the winds and runs on screwball comedy fuel. Towards the end this gives way to energy generated by increasing amouts of sentimentality, as Markus’s relationship with daughter Mathilde comes to the fore, and the entire grouping of oddballs starts to takes on the function of a family unit.
Eventually, revenge has been extracted, there’s been a big guns-blazing finale and various parties have learned emotional lessons along the way. Jensen ends the film as he began it, with snow falling and Markus now in a big Christmasy jumper as if to say “this is how you traditionally end films – order restored – QED”. Bizarre.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021