If you aren’t watching Danish cinema, you’re missing out on some of the most provocative and engaging films of the past decade. “The Hunt,” “Another Round” and “The Guilty” are just a few recent examples of films that have garnered enough attention to earn Oscar nominations or even win awards in the United States. Now, another is here to join their ranks.
“Riders of Justice” is a shining example of Danish cinema, bringing the darkness and grit of an action-thriller to the forefront, while also incorporating the humanity and lightheartedness of real life – and often balancing both at the same time.
Director Anders Thomas Jensen has now made five feature films, and every single one of them stars Mads Mikkelsen. With Mikkelsen’s stock continuing to rise in the States, American directors have finally caught on to what Jensen has known all along: Mikkelsen is a sure-fire hit. The duo has developed quite a rapport with each other, leaving no doubt of the vulnerability and mayhem that will occur on screen whenever they are together.
This time around, Mikkelsen plays a war veteran on active duty in the Middle East before he is called home due to an unforeseen tragedy. In the wake of this tragedy, he finds himself and his daughter struggling to make sense of their new reality.
The screenplay, also written by Jensen showcases one of the most prescient and heartbreaking stories about loss and the relationship people have with death and mourning. As the story slowly unravels and each new character is revealed to be as nutty and perfect as the last, you begin to see the larger picture that Jensen is expertly crafting.
Typically, we would see larger than life, trope-riddled characters conveniently dealing with the five stages of grief. Instead, Jensen frames the story around revenge and chooses small moments within the narrative to highlight those stages in engaging and meaningful ways.
Dealing with grief is tricky, not everyone can make it through the stages – Mikkelsen’s daughter in the film, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), tries to make sense of the tragedy by remembering and writing down everything that took place leading up to the accident. She repeatedly asks herself what went wrong, what could have prevented it? She desperately searches for meaning and a higher purpose, hoping that it did not happen in vain. However, the film deftly and subtly presents the idea that fate and consequence are often random and without subterfuge. Circumventing any major political or religious conflicts, Jensen chooses to present both sides in ingenious and entertaining ways.
Beyond Mikkelsen and Gadeberg, the film boasts an ensemble of colorful characters played to perfection by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lars Byrgmann, and Nicolas Bro. Each character in some way not only brings weight and levity to the film but also helps the two leads accept their loss. Often, they find it is those on the outside – those beat down most by life – who understand the best. It is about community and facing reality together. Mikkelsen delivers one of his best performances, carrying everything in his eyes and shoulders, and everyone in the audience is able to feel that weight, too.
With some outstanding cinematography from Kasper Tuxen and a few very well-placed special effects, this film will have you laughing and biting your nails the whole way.
Altogether, “Riders of Justice” is an emotionally charged, expertly crafted and darkly hilarious thrill ride with genuine passion –an exceptionally human story.
“Riders of Justice” is now playing in select theaters and available on paid VOD.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.