Content warning: sexual violence
Someone, no clue who, must have wondered what would happen if John Wick lost something more important than a dog. “Riders of Justice” is a gloriously different film, but the answer, in terms of John Wick, is a whole lot darker.
There won’t be any deja vu while watching “Riders of Justice.” Director Anders Thomas Jensen (co-credited for writing) has made a fabulously idiosyncratic revenge thriller. It opens with a simple, smart scene. A girl wants a blue bike for Christmas, but the vendor only has red. So the innocent girl sets off a chain of events that leads to the death of military man Markus’ (Mads Mikkelsen, stony, calculated, overflowing with violence) wife. As the film opens, there’s plenty of meat about “what ifs” and how decisions intertwine — a puzzle the film obsesses over.
If the opening sequence sometimes strays into being lethargic, Jensen has caught himself by the point Markus’ wife is sheared away, along with the wall of a train. Probability researchers and best friends Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Lennart (Lars Brygmann) turn up at Markus’ house, insisting with statistical certainty her death was the byproduct of the assassination of a witness testifying against a biker gang.
A few turns later and a Carhartt jeans-wearing, emotionally stunted Markus is killing a gang member, researchers in tow. Perhaps his daughter, Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), was right to tell him to accept free therapy. The film’s compositions — thematic and visual — often rely on distinct contrasts. So does its sense of humor, such as the size difference between Otto and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), a facial recognition expert that got roped in to track down that guy that befell Markus’ rage, plus the next dozen bad guys. (Otto is wrapped up on a slice of the bed, Emmenthaler, spread-eagle, occupies the other three quarters.)
Such contrasts make “Riders of Justice” a distinctly fun movie. But Jensen isn’t playing around, and he chases each gag with a gut punch. Underlying the fun pokes, “Riders of Justice” is the vehicle for some very disturbed characters. They’re not distressed in the same way: Markus is Markus, Otto suffers from the horrors of a drunken car crash and Lennart from a sexually abusive childhood, while Emmenthaler struggles with personal confidence.
Further below this trauma is a distinctly queer narrative run by the supporting cast. “Riders of Justice” is kind enough not to hit viewers over the head with that, however. Sexuality is never overt — it’s even modestly ambiguous here — but Lennart was clearly abused by a man as a child, and he has a rapport with Emmenthaler like that between two fiery exes. While Markus wages war with the gang, the supporting characters mark their crusade against the homophobic slur-slinging gang members.
Where “Riders of Justice” goes wrong is its refusal to make a clean break from the typical. The supporting characters are refreshingly unique — we haven’t even gotten to the rescued sex slave — but their haunts are not. Haven’t we had enough of connecting queer people with pedophilia? The inspired characters risk dissolving into their woes, becoming figments of the past instead of revelations of the future they’re verging on. The fact remains, however: These are some of the most singular characters to grace screens as of late, even if they need some fleshing out.
The same goes for the rest of the film. So often, Jensen makes brilliant, but dark and subversive forays into ingenuity, only to scurry back to the revenge thriller’s rigid form — an origin story leads to platitudes, and so forth. “Riders of Justice” comes so close to rethinking it all, and it does throw away some action movie standbys, but inevitably locks into schema. We end up at a guns-blazing standoff at Markus’s house that imperils Mathilde, because we must.
As the film closes, however, Jensen seems to call himself out. It won’t spoil to say everything’s tied up in time for a warm and fuzzy Christmas, except Markus. He’s still much the same as he was. Even as Otto — who, like the other characters, has built himself up — gives Markus a kind glance, “Riders of Justice” itself seems to say, “suck it, loser” to the convention-bound macho.