It takes no leap of the imagination to picture Hollywood remaking this film with Liam Neeson as the star. After all, this crime thriller/drama (with just enough twisted humor to make you laugh) is really just a Danish take on a tired, familiar trope. A deployed, weathered soldier receives the worst call from home: His wife has been killed in a horrific train commuter train accident and he needs to come home immediately to take care of their teenaged daughter. As he tries to pull together their day to day lives, he is shut off from his own emotions, to the dismay of his grieving daughter. But when a stranger comes to his door and proclaims that he was on the train, and he thinks it was actually not an accident but foul play, well our hero has one thing in his mind: REVENGE.
Yeah, it sounds kind of typical, right? But scratch Liam Neeson from your mind and insert the super-versatile and beloved badass Mads Mikkelsen as Markus, the grizzled lead. Then surround him with a trio of quirky brainy sidekicks all on the spectrum, and you have a surprisingly fresh and wildly entertaining vengeance flick with a surprising amount of heart.
Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lars Brygmann, Nicolas Bro, respectively) are the kind of wimpy guys that a man with a mission does NOT want tagging along on his quest for revenge. But Otto is the one who initially knocks on Markus’ door… a bit out of guilt (he had given up his seat to Markus’ wife), but also out of suspicion (too many things he noticed on the train points to a bomb planted to off a suspect in a gang warfare trial). I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Markus learns to respect the quirks of the trio (motormouthy, picked-upon and angry, and nervous and gimpy, in no particular order), but they are the ones with the hacker-level investigative skills that the police seem to be lacking. And even though the bumbling trio of Otto, Lennart, and Emmenthaler have dozens of years of therapy between them, it is obvious that Markus is clearly the one in need of some help as he decides to rid the city of gangsters.
Riders of Justice is wildly entertaining, even surprising you by getting you right in the feels on occasion. Mikkelsen, even with his interesting face buried in a bushy gray beard, manages to make even the most deadpan hero complex and fascinating to watch. Denmark has such deep acting talent these days that it is unsurprising that Kaas, Brygmann, and Bro (who can be recognized in other Danish film and TV) all manage to make their goofy characters irritating, funny, and sympathetic. My only quibble is that this ultra-violent revenge flick takes place in Denmark at all. Last year there were 49 homicides in the entire country. There are probably that many bodies in the carnage of this one film. As satisfying as it can be to watch a hero mow down a row of bad guys with a machine gun, it made me kind of sad to realize that that is what made this otherwise uniquely Danish film seem so… American.