From Krzysztof Kieślowski to Ashton Kutcher, many of cinema’s greatest thinkers have been fascinated by the mind-boggling “what ifs” of blind chance and the butterfly effect. The movies — painstakingly constructed alternate realities that are created by exerting an unnatural degree of control over the randomness of the universe — have a funny way of calling to the kinds of people who look for patterns in the chaos around them (and perhaps a way to control it).
Danish filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen is definitely one of them, and we ought to be mighty grateful for whatever strange quirks of fate brought the “Men & Chicken” director to his latest project. While “Riders of Justice” might introduce itself as a death-dark revenge comedy — a rather straightforward riff on the “Taken” formula with a lightly cosmic twist — nothing in this life is ever as simple as it seems. Or as strange. What starts as the knotted stuff of violent coincidence soon unravels into something more bittersweet, as Mads Mikkelsen’s first movie after Oscar winner “Another Round” restitches itself into another giddy and unexpectedly poignant modern fable about the search for meaning in a world where everything happens by chance, but nothing is a coincidence.
It’s also another movie about the stupid shit that middle-aged men get up to when they’re bored and in crisis, but that aspect of the story takes a while to fall into place, and “Riders of Justice” is just as concerned with arranging its various dominos as it is with knocking them down. The first one that falls hardly seems like it could be a domino at all: An Estonian priest’s granddaughter wants a bike for Christmas, but she doesn’t like the color of the one that her town’s black market dealer has for sale at his stall. Lucky for her, Santa Claus is happy to pull a few strings. The merchant phones a shady associate as soon as his potential customer is out of sight, and the accomplice steals a sea green 10-speed from a crowded rack in Copenhagen a few hundred miles away. And they all lived happily ever after.
Alas, one person’s Christmas miracle is another’s life-altering tragedy. Unlucky for Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), the teenager to whom the stolen bike belonged, she’s now forced to use public transportation. The good news is that she won’t have to ride the subway alone, as her mom — heartsick over the news that her military officer husband Markus (a bearded and severe Mikkelsen) will be stuck in the Middle East for another three months — decides to spend the day with her only child. The bad news is that the train collides with something on the tracks and one of the subway car’s hard metal walls is peeled away with the ease of a can-opener. Mathilde survives, but her mother does not.
Otto (Jensen regular Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is one of the more fortunate ones, but the anxious engineer — who was on his way home from a disastrous presentation about his latest probability algorithm, and insisted that Mathilde’s mom take his seat mere seconds before impact — is convinced that the crash wasn’t an accident. What are the odds that a former member of the Riders of Justice gang would die in a fatal derailment in the days before he was set to testify against his ex boss? They’re not great. Then again, zoom out far enough and the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against just about everything that has ever happened.
Markus doesn’t want to talk to anyone when he’s discharged to deal with his grief, including the daughter he’s always treated like a grunt (Mathilde’s weight is a subject of much discussion). When Otto shows up at his door, desperate for anyone to believe his theory, Markus almost snaps his neck. But Otto isn’t alone — his little brigade of eccentric tech gurus also includes a traumatized kook named Lennart (a Kevin Kline-ish Lars Brygmann) and a gun shy computer expert who’s seriously obsessed with screen resolutions (the hilarious Nicolas Bro as Emmenthaler) — and the three of them are able to persuade Markus that the Riders of Justice killed his wife. They’ll follow the evidence trail, and he’ll slaughter the gangsters to whom it leads. No risk is too extreme for a shot at catharsis. No tragedy is too senseless to satisfy the need for order.
Mikkelsen is more jacked and implosive than usual, but the terrifyingly volatile Markus (no stranger to strangling the life out of people) is a lot closer to the actor’s wheelhouse than the average Joe he somehow pulled off in “Another Round.” Mikkelsen wouldn’t know how to be uninteresting on screen if he tried, but his performance here might have felt overly familiar if not for how the rest of Jensen’s cast plays against him as the movie chips away at Markus’ “I don’t need anyone’s help” approach to swallowing his pain. Potentially trite in lesser hands, the magical bond that forms between the soldier and his merry gang of nerds bristles with a reliable comic friction that becomes even stronger as the team expands to include Mathilde’s ultra-sensitive boyfriend Sirius (Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt) and a gay sex slave with a heart of gold (Gustav Lindh) who they save from a human trafficking situation that echoes the pawn shop sequence in “Pulp Fiction.”
The found family vibe that starts to sink in as sweet as the circumstances around it are serious (“I sometimes think that people with problems band together,” one character observes), and “Riders of Justice” only grows more engaging as Jensen ratchets up the stark contrast between this fairy tale fellowship and the cold reality of picking a fight to the death with the hardest gang in Denmark. One plot detail requires more disbelief than even this semi-heightened story is able to suspend — there’s just no way that a smart young adult like Mathilde would swallow the lie that her dad’s new friends are actually visiting psychologists who are there to talk him through his pain — but that whopper is largely redeemed by how endearing it is to watch Mathilde and Otto’s crew adopt each other.
“Never mind the methods,” someone insists, “it’s the results that matter.” In a film that belabors its points so loudly that even the most disinterested viewers will be able to hear them over the sick jokes and occasional machine gun fire, there’s no missing the unhidden layers of a line like that. Jensen isn’t just articulating the mindset behind his characters’ mission, he’s also laying out the groundwork for the philosophical ethos that saturates every sturdy frame of this tonally assured film: Only when you accept that everything is random can you begin to appreciate the reason behind it. That can be a dangerous, even delusional way of thinking. But, in its own cock-eyed way, the brutal and bitterly funny “Riders of Justice” finds something empowering in that as well, and wraps the whole thing up in a blood-soaked bow with such holiday cheer that Markus’ tragedy starts to seem like his Christmas miracle, too.
Magnet will release “Riders of Justice” in theaters in New York and L.A. on Friday, May 14. It will be available on VOD on Friday, May 21.
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