Mads Mikkelsen’s sleek bone structure and rich Gü pudding voice have made him the most desirable Danish export since Bang & Olufsen speakers. Hollywood loves him: he’s been a Bond baddie (in Casino Royale), a Marvel villain (in Doctor Strange) and a tragic Star Wars father figure (in Rogue One, as the conflicted architect of the Death Star). But Mikkelsen has continued to use his expanding screen clout to support Denmark’s domestic film industry. His involvement likely helped the recent Another Round – about a teacher drinking his way through a mid-life crisis, with Mikkelsen getting convincingly swiggy with it – make a serious impact at the Oscars and Baftas this year. With any luck it will also attract some curious eyeballs to Riders Of Justice.
If that translated title makes writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen’s movie sound like a violent revenge thriller, it is likely a deliberate move. Introduced in military fatigues and with close-cropped hair, Mikkelsen looks every inch the grizzled, scowling action star. His heavily-bearded soldier Markus is called back from Afghanistan after a freak commuter rail blast kills his wife. Unable to connect with his traumatised teen daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), Markus grimly drinks and smokes through his grief. When nervy researcher Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) turns up on his doorstep and suggests the explosion was a targeted murder intended to look like an accident, Markus is primed to seek some bloody justice.
This is also the moment when heroic screen fantasy meets something more like mundane reality. In order to effectively track down his targets – a violent biker gang – Markus needs the help of the recently unemployed Otto and his oddball gang of techies to do some serious groundwork. From a bodged-together command centre in Markus’s spacious barn, this bickering B-team take verbal potshots at each other while struggling with basic weapons training, all the time trying to keep the curious Mathilde out of the loop. Unlike most Liam Neeson-style ass-kicking flicks, a shared mission gives these various lost souls a renewed sense of camaraderie and purpose. Then something horrible happens and the bullets start zinging.
It is these tonal lurches that make Riders Of Justice such an unpredictable experience. Seeing such deftly drawn eccentrics being thrown into blackly comic and potentially deadly situations is reminiscent of the Coen brothers. The often outlandish Mikkelsen – who has also played one-eyed viking warriors, flashy assassins and even Hannibal Lecter – is the straight man in all this: a squared-away, exasperated soldier babysitting a bunch of misfits during an ill-advised extrajudicial operation. If you can tune into its zig-zagging frequencies, Riders Of Justice is an immensely rewarding experience, one that interrogates our fascination with cinematic revenge while also delivering convincing and crunchy action. It’s like having your Gü pudding and eating it.
Riders of Justice is in cinemas from July 23