Movie Review: Riders of Justice (2020)

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After making a striking first impression in his earliest screen role in Nicolas Winding Refn's gritty and groundbreaking feature filmmaking debut "Pusher" in 1996, actor Mads Mikkelsen became a sensation in his native Denmark. And although Refn's film had more in common with say, Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" than it did with the newly launched naturalism based Dogme '95 film movement from directors Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, Mikkelsen evolved into one of the most internationally recognizable stars from this school of filmmaking, thanks to a vital, early collaboration with writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen.

Following Jensen's 1998 Oscar for Best Short Film, fresh off the heels of having been nominated in the same category the two years prior as well, Mikkelsen's alliance with the filmmaker began with Jensen's feature directorial debut "Flickering Lights" in 2000. But their partnership really reached the height of its power in the films "Open Hearts" and "After the Wedding," which Jensen co-wrote with their director Susanne Bier (and the latter of which garnered Bier her first of two Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film). The global success of those films, along with some which made Mikkelsen the muse of other Dogme vets led directly to his Hollywood crossover and subsequent popularity as a franchise favorite with turns in new Marvel, James Bond, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Indiana Jones properties.

Unwilling to leave his friends, language, and country behind, the loyal chameleon regularly alternates between huge studio tentpoles and the latest films from those he first found success alongside decades earlier. And this is not only true of Vinterberg, for whom he just starred in the Oscar-winning "Another Round," but especially Jensen, who has written and/or directed Mikkelsen in some of his most surprising fare over the years, from the morality tale "Adam's Apples" to the western "The Salvation" (for director Kristian Levring) to the new unorthodox holiday revenge dramedy "Riders of Justice."

Playing a recently deployed soldier who's sent home to care for his teenage daughter after she survives the train explosion that claimed the life of his wife, Mikkelsen's Markus is given an unexpected outlet for his rage when he's visited by two statisticians, including a survivor played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who was the last person besides his daughter to see his wife alive. Presenting Markus with evidence indicating that her death might have been part of a coordinated attack to prevent a man from testifying against the head of a notorious street gang, after a colleague in facial recognition manages to narrow down a suspect, these three odd wise men join forces with their new soldier friend.

Having neglected to figure out precisely what they should do once they confront the man, when their first interaction impulsively escalates into murder, the motley crew decides they're not done just yet and soon find themselves in the midst of a war with one of Denmark's deadliest crime syndicates.

But rather than give in to the basest instincts of the revenge genre and turn the film into something resembling "Death Wish," by setting the film around the Christmas holiday and populating it with social misfits just out of step with society, Jensen takes the opportunity to explore the questions of faith, chance, fate, and human connection that have fascinated him throughout his entire career.

While not entirely successful, most likely owing to differences in culture and translation, Jensen's tendency to weave startling bits of humor into the plotline, ranging from a recurring focus on weight regarding the teenage daughter of Markus or the blunt handling of a Ukrainian male sex slave they liberate makes the film hit a few discordant notes here and there. Still, with this talented cast, including men like Mikkelsen and Kaas – who've worked together for decades – once again able to add new layers to these at times tonally uneven yet undeniably complex characters, it works much better than you fear it will early on.

Culminating in a thrillingly photographed violent western-style showdown in the snow where the wounded and outnumbered men must figure out how to get out of this situation alive, Jensen punctuates his final act with a few true surprises as his characters struggle to figure things out amid the chaos.

Though unable to authentically balance its swings from sardonic to brutal to funny to sad without the film feeling the least bit artificial, Mikkelsen and company ensure that although – like their characters – they always remain ready to battle, the real thing that sets "Riders" apart is in the ensemble's journey towards one another and away from revenge. Of course, having proven it again and again over the years, it seems as though that kind of loyalty is more than just a plot point, in the end, it's the Mikkelsen way.

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