By Bradley Lane
Starting with the massive cultural phenomenon of 2008’s Taken, modern film has been obsessed with revenge. A specific type of revenge found in films like John Wick, The Equalizer and Unknown where to truly feel whole after a loss the main character must hurt, kill or otherwise harm his assailants with reckless abandon. It is an uncritical type of emotional payoff that often feels lazy the way it refuses to engage the actual pain behind the protagonist’s actions. Enter Riders of Justice, a Danish film from last year that seeks to interrogate the emptiness of those straightforward revenge narratives.
Mads Mikkelsen stars as the grizzled emotionally distant Markus, who is serving overseas when he gets the call his wife died in a freak train accident. That is until he is approached by a team of disgruntled tech nerds who think that the train crash was no accident at all. Together the mismatched group of buffoonish nerds and a hardened veteran seek to avenge the wrongful deaths of those who died on the train. All the while, Markus must grieve the loss of his wife and try and be emotionally present for his grieving daughter who survived the train crash.
Riders of Justice is both idiosyncratic and very un-American in its approach to tone. It attempts to balance the weight of a serious drama with the excitement of an action-thriller, and the levity of a raunchy comedy, to middling affect. Despite my being a fan of international cinema for years now, I found the tone of the film a barrier for entry into my enjoyment of the film. The comedic elements worked for me only occasionally, but otherwise I found them very distracting from the emotional impact of the film.
Despite tonal issues with the film, the core of its story remained resonant with me. The exploration of Markus as fundamentally broken for needing to resort to violence as well as interrogating his emotional absence in his daughter’s grieving process was an obvious observation on these types of revenge films but was executed with grace and subtlety. Through these observations the film can thematically branch out into territory I didn’t expect like found family, the nature of coincidence and how humans try and make sense of a senseless world.
Despite having its issues, Riders of Justice is a welcome critique of the revenge film narrative structure that feels long overdue. It is currently able to stream on Hulu. – 3/5 stars