What is the probability of a Danish soldier joining forces with a bunch of grown-up nerds to wage war on a biker gang in order to exact revenge for the death of the soldier’s wife? And what’s the likelihood of that plot resulting in a film that manages to be both funny and poignant? Mathematically speaking, the likelihood increases if the film in question stars Mads Mikkelsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas and is written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, whose earlier film Adam’s Apples (about a pathologically optimistic priest trying to reform a bunch of Neo-Nazis and other deplorables) was an unlikely hit.
The Danish soldier Markus (Mikkelsen, as dependable as ever in a role that requires him to be credible both as an action hero and a man collapsing in on himself) returns from Afghanistan when his wife Emma is killed in a catastrophic train accident. It soon becomes clear that a life of warfare and killing has left him ill-prepared to be a father to his teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), more so because he is a man who deals with emotions, his as much as others’, by suppressing them, if necessary by force.
Then Markus is approached by Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), who had also been on the train where Emma died. He had offered her his seat just before the crash – which essentially resulted in her getting killed rather than him. Otto is an expert in probability and algorithms, and when he hears that one of the other victims of the accident was a key witness in a trial against the leader of the Riders of Justice motorbike gang, he quickly deduces that the odds of this really having been an accident are improbably low. He believes in the numbers, and the numbers tell him that the train crash – and therefore Emma’s death – must have been the result of foul play. He even has a suspect ready, a man closely associated with the Riders of Justice. Markus, Otto and Otto’s friends and fellow oddballs Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) track down the likely culprit – and due to Markus’ particular skillset and psychological makeup, the man ends up dead – which puts the four of them into the crosshairs of the Angels of Justice. Wacky and violent hijinks ensue.
On its surface, Riders of Justice is an action comedy, and it succeeds at both of these genres: Mikkelsen is scary and convincing as a killing machine, grounding a plot that often asks for industrial-strength suspension of disbelief. The Probability Squad, meanwhile, is great at delivering Jensen’s dark, deadpan humour, and as in Adam’s Apples, Jensen knows how to blend the laughs and the violence to good effect, making Riders of Justice thrilling as well as funny.
The film tries to do more than that, however: it wants to say something about broken men, individuals whose various hangups leave them barely capable to deal with a world that consists of things beyond gunfights and algorithms. Markus especially is a strong example of a toxic kind of masculinity that makes him a great killer and a terrible father, but Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler in their different ways are equally struggling to deal with their neuroses and with past trauma. Working together to exact justice – or at least revenge -, they are slowly inching towards facing up to their own failings.
Jensen uses his central theme of probability to show how these men try to explain and find sense in a world they believe to be random and meaningless. Otto believes that the world is governed by more parameters than can ever be calculated, let alone understood, yet he strives to make those calculations nonetheless, filling in blanks with what he wishes to believe. Similarly, Markus is a staunch atheist, believing in a world that is cold, cruel and meaningless, and he berate his daughter for seeking comfort in some sort of belief after the death of her mother, but he himself clings on to his crusade against the gang because he hopes to enforce his own will, his sense of order, on the small part of the world that he can influence. Both men act against their existentialist worldviews because in the end they cannot those views without succumbing to despair.
And Riders of Justice works surprisingly well in the scenes focusing on those themes, thanks in no small part to its strong cast. Mikkelsen especially gives his character a sense of depth that elevates the film beyond the action comedy is often is. But Jensen’s ambition to make his film into something more than an action comedy also makes the ending a copout at best and hypocritical at worst. Riders of Justice has a third-act twist that is set up well and works as a darkly funny joke, but it throws a very different light on the roaring rampage of revenge (to echo a certain Bride) that makes up most of the film. This, together with the film’s critique of Markus’ toxicity, may make it difficult to find an adequate ending that both satisfies an audience and manages to be true to what the film wants to be about. Jensen managed to solve a similar quandary in Adam’s Apples by means of an audacious joke, but in Riders of Justice he doesn’t pull of a similar feat. Instead, he ends up pandering to the audience that just wants to see bad guys get shot up, no matter how unlikely it is or how much it is at cross purposes with what has gone before. On the surface, this may be satisfying enough, in a kill-them-all-and-let-God-sort-them-out way, but it means that the film basically ignores and even contradicts the thematic work it’s done. I can’t think of many other movies that are so eager to have their cake and eat it, and so ignorant of the extent to which this undermines what made them most interesting, only to deliver an ending as shallowly triumphant and fundamentally hollow as this one. Such hollowness can be a feature, but that’s not how the ending comes across.
Would I have wanted the film to be less thematically ambitious and just deliver a darkly funny action comedy, without any of the fascinating character wrinkles, which in turn would have made the finale work better? No, I wanted Riders of Justice to be more consistent and find an ending that is true to its themes, its strong scenes of Markus & Co facing up to their failings and limitations. Jensen instead chose the easier, more disappointing option. Could Riders of Justice have ended in a way that would work as an action comedy as well as drama, respecting the story it had told up to that point? I suspect that Otto’s algorithms would consider the likelihood of this to be very small – but I cannot help but wish that Jensen had taken that particular chance. It could have resulted in a film that actually had something to say, rather than shooting up its themes alongside its antagonists in a facile showdown.