ST. LOUIS — Certain things in life are a sure thing. Fresh bacon on Sunday morning. People do not understand how roundabouts work. Savage attacks over one's politics. Another certainty in life is Denmark films made with Mads Mikkelsen are always going to be good. Anders Thomas Jensen's "Riders of Justice" is no different.
Fun Fact: Jensen has made five feature-length films in his young career. All five have starred or co-starred Mikkelsen. They are the Danish DiCaprio and Scorsese, a pair of creatives who most likely know each other's yin and yang without pause. A shorthand that makes this new action drama a real treat. But it's his intelligently perceptive screenplay here that makes a bigger difference. Revenge plots are a dime a dozen these days, so Jensen wisely shakes up the setup, giving his muse the proper showcase along with a cast of misfits that makes this hard-hitting thriller somewhat lighter than usual.
Markus (Mikkelsen) is the kind of stoic figure who commands attention with a mere grunt or gathering of a few words or less. Cranky and diabolical when pushed, he's a 24/7 ticking time bomb, or the last person even a group of gangsters should mess with. If he tells you to stop talking, threatening to punch you in the face if the order isn't followed, the best plan would be to shut up. Just ask Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a data expert who thinks the death of Markus' wife in a train crash is no accident and someone who has tasted a punch from his angry new friend. Along with Emmenthaler (a hilarious Nicolas Bro) and Lennart (Lars Brygmann steals a few scenes), a pair of fellow data-analyzing geeks, Markus and Otto are driven to find justice--that is if they can get over each other's flaws, vulnerabilities, and troubles.
"Riders of Justice" isn't quite what you think it is, though. It's intent is different enough to stand out from the pack. The action is taut and well-choreographed, but Jensen is trying to get at something else here. A matter of the human condition and how family can be chosen and not just given to you at birth. How a human being adapts, or fails to recover, from a horrific tragedy. One of the more ingenious aspects of his new film is that it doesn't exactly subvert the revenge thriller genre (which is pure kettle corn for audiences anyway, American or otherwise), but gently brushes a new coat of pain across its cover instead.
Jensen shows you what can be done if you treat the characters with as much respect as you do the audience. The writing is sharp, the editing doesn't jam like an old machine gun, and the cast gives it their all without entering melodramatic territory.
This is the kind of movie where four men argue in a car on the way to a gun battle about which of them needs therapy and why they didn't have a piece of the tasty banana bread before departing. When you can sneak a little whimsical personality into a cold-blooded movie without making too much noise, it's new ground being walked on. The overall story moves along in a somewhat predictable pattern, but the character beats stand out.
Kaas, Bro, and Brygmann could have starred together in a remake of "Gung Ho" before making this movie, because they all have easygoing chemistry. Their chaotic quirks blend well with Mikkelsen's driven soldier of misfortune, a man who can kill easily but emotes like a wounded lion.
The subplot about finding links in the chain of events-how one event leads to another event and how that series of actions bleeds into another person's course-isn't a mere plot gimmick either. This is where Jensen's screenplay really shines, because he finds heartfelt drama in the link between someone's actions and the finality of those choices. It's cerebral thinking for a blunt force revenge flick.
Bottom Line: In the end, Mikkelsen and Jensen prove that an action drama with revenge running through its veins can still make you laugh, especially with some quirky DNA in its blood.