Riders of Justice

Otto, Markus, Emmenthaler and Lennart


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.

Computer whizz Emmenthaler
Tech wizard Emmenthaler



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.






Riders of Justice – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Another Round

Martin chugs down a beer

 

Another Round was a big hit in its native Denmark, managing to coax people into cinemas even as the coronavirus pandemic was shooing them away. Partly because it’s got a big Danish star, Mads Mikkelsen, in the lead, back with director Thomas Vinterberg after their big success The Hunt. And partly because it’s about booze and the Danes are big drinkers, particularly teenage Danes.

Vinterberg made the film at the prompting of his daughter Ida, who suggested that a story fuelled by the exploits of hard-partying teens might be both interesting and successful.

In the end Vinterberg tweaked that idea a bit, to make the film more about boozing middle-aged guys, and then tweaked it again to give it a more upbeat finale, after his daughter died while they were shooting. The film is dedicated to her. And no, her death was not drink-related.

Amazingly, the plot is based on an actual, scientifically dubious but reasonably well aired idea that human beings don’t have quite enough alcohol in their system and that a constant extra hit of booze will make them happier, more confident, more successful, more relaxed, more courageous etc

It’s called the Skålerud Hypothesis, after the psychiatrist who proposed it, and it’s named and discussed at a 40th birthday meal, where Martin (Mikkelsen) is one of four friends, all of whose lives could do with a bit of a lift.

 

The four friends discuss the hypothesis
The four friends discuss the hypothesis

 

Martin in particular is in big trouble. He teaches his history and his class is in open revolt at his inability to lecture coherently, focus or take an interest.

And so the foursome decide to put the Skålerud Hypothesis to the test, setting ground rules – a controlled dose of alcohol, no drinking at weekends or after 8pm, the curfew idea faintly in homage to Ernest Hemingway, a notorious toper.

Vinterberg opens the film with a teenage race around a lake, a beer consumed at every stop, points deducted for vomiting, but after that the focus is mostly on the lives of this foursome – Mikkelsen is joined by Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang and Lars Ranthe, excellent actors all.

Initially it goes well, Martin delighting his class with his sudden rediscovery of his mojo. If booze is good for anything it’s performing and teaching is all about performing. Of course it can’t last, and it doesn’t. Especially when the quaffing quartet decide to up the dose, and then up it again, in scenes that are genuinely hilarious (and impossible to square with the apparent “no booze on set” conditions under which the film was made).

The premise is spurious. What middle aged man raised in a drinking culture doesn’t already know very precisely the finely graded reaction he’ll have to one glass or two or three? Similarly, it would come as no surprise to anyone used to drinking that they perform better after maybe a couple of drinks, but after that it goes downhill rapidly – ask anyone who plays pool.

Put that to one side, though, and what we have is a faintly Lars Von Trier-like (the film is produced by his Zentropa studio) premise-driven film that’s unafraid to work things through to its consequences, though as I said Vinterberg does jolly-up the ending as a salve for his own grief at losing his daughter – that’s her classroom and some of her classmates that Martin is teaching.

It’s the second time out for Vinterberg with Mikkelsen as a teacher, but this is a long way away from The Hunt. For a start it is often very funny – there is one scene where the guys get hideously drunk and then lose almost all control of their limbs in a supermarket packed with displays waiting to be trashed – though it treads the comedic line skilfully. No one is pretending that booze isn’t a great destroyer of lives.

Like The Hunt it’s gnawing away at the success of Denmark – one of the richest countries in the world per capita – and wonders whether prosperity makes Danes a bit too conservative, a bit bored and boring.

Though it’s hardly singing the praises of drinking – and it is the catastrophic manifestation we’re looking at, rather than the grim delayed consequences to health of chronic boozing – campaigners against alcohol misuse won’t be using the film as teaching material. And it does give us a final, joyous… well it’s almost a musical number, Mikkelsen demonstrating some of the jazz ballet moves that his character Martin is supposed to have learned as a youth. Who knew?

 

 

Another Round – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

The Salvation

Mads Mikkelsen takes aim in the western The Salvation

Anyone for a Danish western, a great one? Made by one of the Dogme boys? If you look up Dogme in the Wikipedia, it will tell you that this particularly austere style (no music, no lights, no effects) was founded by two Danes, Von Trier and Vinterberg, who were soon joined by two others, Kragh-Jacobsen and Levring.

And it’s possible to read this film as an announcement, shout, by the least known of those directors, Kristian Levring, that he doesn’t do that Dogme thing any more. Because The Salvation contains every big movie trick in the book – a lush score, arresting sets, cinematography snatched at the golden hour, melodramatic camera movements, sudden close-ups, varying depth of focus, operatic composition, fabulous landscapes, digital backgrounds, post-production colour tweaks, heavy filtration… and on it goes.

If Dogme aimed for some sort of puritan truth and simplicity, Levring is now aiming at high artifice, maximum referentiality, the mega-meta. Every scene, every shot looks like it’s been borrowed from another film, another director – Sergio Leone’s theatrical scale (reinforced by Kasper Winding’s Morricone-esque soundtrack), John Ford’s monumental locations, Peckinpah’s slo-mo gunplay, Aldrich’s codes of masculinity and concern with ageing.

The same goes for the plot, which is a man’s-gotta-do revenger starring Mads Mikkelsen as a husband welcoming his Danish-speaking wife to the New World in the opening scene. Within minutes the thick-tongued locals are eyeing the wife (Nanna Øland Fabricius), and scant but brutally tense minutes after that Mikkelsen is a man with blood on his hands and a price on his head.

Perhaps it is Levring’s Dogme background – which relies heavily on performance, since there isn’t much else to fall back on – but there’s a just-rightness about the acting throughout, everyone seeming to get that this is homage not pastiche, a serious film not a joke. The always underrated and almost infinitely versatile Mikkelsen’s talents for scowling and suppressed rage are brilliantly deployed, but it’s around the edges that some of the most satisfying performances can be seen. Douglas Henshall (where has he been?) is particularly good as the shifty local sheriff who’s also a preacher, Jonathan Pryce also playing with a familiar type as the cowardly mayor who’s also the undertaker, everyone being in the pocket of local badman Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who periodically rides into town to menace the locals and kill someone because he doesn’t like the tilt of his hat.

This brings us to Eva Green, the wife of the man Mikkelsen has killed, and sister in law of Morgan, whose tongue has to be rolled back into his mouth so he can speak whenever she’s around. She, by contrast, has no tongue at all, it having been cut out by Injuns. The wordless Green, actress to the last, responds by using the equipment left in her armoury to deliver a role that proves you can wring more nuance than you might expect using flashing eyes and a heaving bosom.

These two wrong ’uns, with Mikkelsen skirting round the edge, will eventually meet up in the sort of ghost town that hasn’t been seen on film for decades, in the sort of big shoot-out that eclipses even the one in James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma.

Familiar people, familiar locations, familiar plotlines. If Jens Schlosser’s cinematography weren’t so jaw-dropping magnificent, if everything else weren’t so composed and primped and placed and sweated over, and if it weren’t so full of real stuf – dirt and sex and death – you’d be tempted to think someone was having a laugh. But Levring leaves one reveal for his final shot, which not only fully explains what’s been going on, but historically re-situates the entire film, you could say the entire genre. As the hero rides off into the sunset – hell yes – it’s a brilliant way to finish.

The Salvation – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2014

Casino Royale

Eva Green and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale

 

 

You only live twice, or so they say. Casino Royale is the old Bond song incarnate. Because we have been here before. Not titularly – though we have, in the 1967 spoof made by a gaggle of writers and directors (John Huston, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen and Joseph Heller among them) who must have been high. Tonally, I mean. After A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s last Bond and a bad performer at the box office, moves were made to zhuzh up the increasingly tired formula. In came Timothy Dalton, out went the eyebrow, and for a couple of films, which in retrospect, look better and better, there was a return to a badass Bond. But neither 1987’s The Living Daylights nor 1989’s License to Kill did very well at the box office either. Producer Cubby Broccoli panicked and out went not just Dalton but the grittier style. In came Brosnan and back came the eyebrow. Broccoli died shortly after, leaving his daughter and Michael G Wilson (who’d presided over the Dalton Bonds) to restart the process that Cubby had abandoned. By the mid-90s the time was right. Other directors were cannibalising 007 for their own big-budget actioners – James Cameron made True Lies, a Bond movie by any other name. While John Woo with Face/Off, Renny Harlin with The Long Kiss Goodnight, Tony Scott with Enemy of the State and Michael Bay with The Rock (starring Sean Connery) were clearly all at it too.

But though Brosnan’s Bond got dirtier during his four-film run – he grew a beard! – it’s taken till now to finally reboot properly. And so here we are, with the “blond Bond” – and what a gift to the publicity machine twittering fanboys are when someone takes their pacifier away. A reboot and a reset, Casino Royale puts Bond back in a tux and back at the gaming tables for a film that’s littered with slaughtered sacred cows – there is no pre-title stunt-filled breathtaker, instead a brutal, CCTV assassination by our new favourite Bond. There’s no sign of Q, and his “I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir”, or of many of the usual gang of pantomime regulars. There’s a distinct lack of rumpy-pumpy, though Bond does get a dalliance with Eva Green, as uber-Bond girl Vesper Lynd. And 007 even seems also to be completely indifferent to the making of the perfect martini – when the estimable Daniel Craig is asked whether he’d like it shaken or stirred, he replies “Do I look like I give a damn?” Unwilling financially to match Bay or Cameron and their legions of CG technicians, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson have decided instead to deliver a great spy thriller instead. The plot is bare-bones – on his very first mission, 007 must stop Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) from winning at cards in a casino in Montenegro, because if he does… no idea… something to do with funding all the terrorist outfits in the world. Does it matter? Not really. Because the film is in fact more interesting watched as an exercise in franchise renewal – Bond slo-mo walking out of the waves à la Ursula Andress, Bond actually washing blood off himself, Bond apparently dying. As an actual thriller… it gets about four-fifths there before losing its way towards the end, as some old Bond tropes (moving the action to Venice, in this case, for little reason) re-assert themselves and that familiar “are we nearly there yet” feeling takes hold. That apart, it’s a great Bond movie, and Daniel Craig, scowling when he’s not running (even free-running), is a great 007. Welcome back.

 

Casino Royale – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Valhalla Rising

Mads Mikkelsen (centre) in Valhalla Rising

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

25 September

 

 

The Battle of Stamford Bridge, 1066

On this day in 1066, an Anglo Saxon army led by King Harold Godwinson went into battle against a Norwegian army led by Harald Hardrada. The English (ie Anglo Saxon) army numbered about 15,000, the invading army around 9,000. As the numbers suggest, the English won, though at a cost of at least five thousand men (estimates put the losses on the other side at around six thousand, or two thirds of the army). Why does this battle matter? For a start it marks the last time the Anglo Saxons would win anything – three weeks later Godwinson went into battle again, against the invading Normans at Hastings, and lost both his life and his kingdom to the invader William aka the Conqueror. This would have profound effects on the English language – it remains Germanic at base but as a result of that invasion it now carries a huge superstructure of Romance words. The battle also marks the end of what is known as the Viking Age, the era when extraordinary sailors and adventurers from Northern Europe would spread out across the world, leaving fair- and red-haired reminders of their presence in places as far-flung as Portugal, Ireland, Greenland and Turkey. The Vikings even got as far as Newfoundland, and probably spent 400 years trading with the indigent Native “Americans” (for want of a better word) – at least archaeological evidence of a Norwegian coin found in Maine seems to suggest as much.

 

 

Valhalla Rising (2009, dir: Nicolas Winding Refn)

After the success of Drive, the other films of the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn came under more scrutiny. Most, the Pusher trilogy and Bronson certainly, concern themselves with aspects of masculinity. As does Valhalla Rising, a remarkable film whose reputation will probably grow as the years go by. Brutal and dirty from the off, it stars Mads Mikkelsen as a mute, one-eyed Viking prize fighter reputed to have been “brought up from hell” and now being yanked about the hellish countryside by his owners from one brutal beat-em-up event to the next. In one early scene, Mikkelsen’s character has tied up his foe, who gives him his finest “damn you to hell” speech full of vitriol. In a Hollywood film this would be the cue for some bromantic “I respect a man who speaks his mind, yadda yadda…”. In Refn’s film it’s the cue for Mikkelsen to slice open the man’s belly and pull out his guts. If you like your films stygian, cloudy, bleak, rainy, pocked with flint, nordic as hell (I think it’s filmed in Scotland in fact), this is for you. But it doesn’t begin and end with hellish violence. Refn is actually more interested in the history than he’s at first letting on. The Crusades feature, as does the arrival of Christianity in a heathen land, as does – if I’m not mistaken (though it is hard to tell) – the discovery of America. It is fabulously, almost hilariously bleak, almost wordless, but there’s a scope to it which is as intense as Terrence Malick, though a Malick restricted to a drab palette of brown, grey and green. Mesmerising.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A refreshing dose of in-your-face brutality
  • Mikkelsen effortlessly trumping any number of pretenders – Tom Hardy, Gerard Butler and Viggo Mortensen can’t compete
  • An outstanding exercise in the creation of mood
  • The action movie meets arthouse, convincingly

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Valhalla Rising – at Amazon