Mads Mikkelsen destroys the ‘cool vigilante dad’ archetype in bleak comedy Riders of Justice

Screened as part of this year’s MIFF selection and in select cinemas now, Riders of Justice is fuelled by equal parts comedy, tragedy and Scandi action. Eliza Janssen reviews this Christmas carol of misplaced male rage.

Revenge isn’t so sweet in the latest bleak comedy from Anders Thomas Jensen. It’s the Danish director’s fifth collaboration with Mads Mikkelsen, and despite featuring a lot more gunfire and hacking than the actor’s recent hit Another Round, both films make a nice double feature of sorts when it comes to bruising depictions of toxic masculinity.

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As with Another Round, Mikkelsen leads a not-so-merry band of Danish dudes grappling with midlife malaise, who land on a thrilling new outlet for their collective panic and rage. Thomas Vinterverg’s film focused on the freeing and chaotic effects of alcohol—the target of satire here is conspiracy, in the wake of a fatal train accident that kills Mikkelsen’s wife and traumatises his daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg).

But was it really an accident? Mild-mannered statistician Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, another frequent buddy of Jensen) begins to notice disturbing clues leading up to the crash that can’t be mere coincidence. When he and a few nerdy friends show Markus (Mikkelsen) the evidence, he’s a little too eager to get his bloody vengeance on the motorcycle gang behind it all.

Like Brad Pitt’s repressed astronaut in Ad Astra, Markus’ perspective as a soldier in Afghanistan makes him great at his job, or at hunting down ‘bad guys’, but a terrible shoulder to cry on: when his daughter attempts to engage with him in her mourning, he barks “stop” at her. No subtitles are needed to grasp the icy depths of his compartmentalisation.

With his grizzled crew cut and beard, Markus couldn’t be more different to his new band of ‘beta male’ counter-terrorists; his reactions range from irritation to eruptions of physical violence. He can’t bear Otto’s well-meaning therapizing, and over the duration of Riders of Justice, the inappropriate nature of Markus’s prickly defence mechanisms only stands out more and more, amongst the snowy serenity of a European Christmas. ‘Guys will really use surveillance technology to hunt down their wife’s killer instead of simply going to therapy’, etc. etc.

Even beyond some well-staged shootouts and grisly torture scenes, Jensen keeps things tense by surrounding a repressed action hero with a quirky found family who are determined to unpack his grief: themselves constantly tormented by rippling consequences of the film’s central accident. If only Mathilde’s bike hadn’t been stolen, her mother wouldn’t have had to be on that train. If only Otto hadn’t offered her his seat.

Mikkelsen’s contrasting silence raises its own questions, the most obvious being: does Markus truly want justice? Or justification, to use his combat skills and righteous fury in the name of revenge?

So, taking into account all that bloodshed and misplaced berserker rage, just how does Riders of Justice function as a comedy? It’s not laugh-out-loud per se, more likely to wring out shocked guffaws as our ‘heroes’ become more desperate in their quest for answers.

Nicholas Bro is very funny as Emmenthaler, a perma-flustered, sweaty hacker equally good at facial recognition software and imaginative swearing (“piss assholes”, “tiny shitty fuck computer”, etc). But Jensen’s black comedy works best in service of satirising the Stoic Vigilante Dad genre itself; you might come away wishing that John Wick would spend a few of those assassin coins on some grief counselling rather than yet another cool gun.

Riders of Justice wrings dark humour and pathos from the comfort of conspiracy: of being able to pin all the world’s senseless pain on one shadowy faction, easily defeated if only you’re enough of a buzzcut-sporting badass. If only you’re man enough.

Action movies like Taken and Charles Bronson’s gun-clenching Death Wish series take that delusion as fact. Their protagonists are the only guys cool and brave enough to go beyond the limp boundaries of the law and take justice into their own hands, killing evildoers and avenging innocents. But they’re also utterly unrealistic—flaccid male power fantasies that suppose a good man with a gun is the only thing that can stop…what, the concept of evil? Death itself?

When we do see his stoic action-man facade drop, Mikkelsen’s displays of grief and self-loathing are magnetic: his gorgeous mug barely flinches at the morgue, and we only see its full range of motion in a devastating bathroom breakdown. The moment of catharsis makes the whole film worth watching—whether Riders of Justice manages to threaten some laughs out of you or not.