Imagine the nerds from “The Big Bang Theory” stumbling into the plot of “Taken,” or pretty much any Liam Neeson out-for-revenge thriller. Now imagine them Danish.
That’s “Riders of Justice,” the dark, bloody, sweet and sometimes hilarious comic thriller from Anders Thomas Jensen. He scripted the Oscar-winning “In a Better World,” which had similar messaging about cycles of violence.
That’s what this is about. A bike is stolen, a girl (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) can’t get to school. Her mother (Anne Birgitte Lind) has to drive her, only the car won’t start. And then her husband (Mads Mikkelsen) calls from Afghanistan, where he’s deployed. His tour has been extended.
That’s how they decide to play hooky for the day. That’s how they ended up on the train. That’s where the newly-fired statistician/mathematician Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) surrenders his seat. And when the train crashes, that seat is where Mom dies.
It’s a terrible tragedy, “not terrorism” officials assure a worried nation. But first Otto, and then his even odder partner Lennart (Lars Brygmann) start adding in variables, as is their wont. Another crash victim was a member of the ironically-named white supremacist biker gang, “Riders of Justice.” He was due to testify in court. His lawyer died, too.
“There are too many indications that this wasn’t an accident,” Otto pleads to the police, who blow him off.
So what do Otto and Lennart do? They go see the teenager who just lost her mother. They talk to her dad and tell him what they’ve theorized. Markus (Mikkelsen) hasn’t been much comfort to Mathilde. He won’t mourn, won’t let her believe she’ll see Mom in heaven.
But get him more proof about that one “suspicious passenger.” Get him a name. THIS is something Markus can do. “Get me close” and let vengeance rain down upon these “Riders.”
Nicolas Bro plays the third nerd, morbidly-obese, borderline-Tourettes Emmenthaler. He, like his two computer compatriots, is certain that certainty is just a data point or two away, that anything is predictable and anyone can be found and studied with enough (illicit) computing power.
Where this grim tale of vengeance turns hilarious is their insistence on riding along — shocked by the violence, or eager to join in. Where it finds its heart is when these very smart, socially-awkward and emotionally-damaged geniuses find themselves adopting this family, taking an interest in Mathilde’s adjustment even if Markus won’t hear of “counseling.”
That’s OK. Lennart’s been in enough therapy that he can fake his way through sessions (Mathilde must be kept in the dark about their true “mission.”) and make informed suggestions about giving her father space, reassurances about what shock has done to her empathy and totally inappropriate cracks about her appearance.
“You’re a chubby little salami,” sounds just as funny and just as unhelpful in a body-shaming sense, in Danish.
The geniuses help the kid with her homework, teach her chess and impart wisdom about her own concerns about the awful “coincidence” that cost Mathilde her mother.
The infinite variables that enter into any “butterfly effect/cause-and-effect” scenario undercut any notion of “there’s no such thing as ‘accidents'” or arguments for a “divine plan.”
Sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence, like a Danish filmmaker naming one of his nerdy heroes “Lennart,” which is damned close to a certain “Big Bang Theory” leading man’s moniker. The tutoring/bonding with the girl bits are straight out of screwball comedies like “Ball of Fire.”
The daft and the absurd intercuts with the violence in Jensen’s film, which — coincidences or not — unfolds with all the usual “vengeance thriller” tropes more or less intact. For instance, no tormented hero can walk into a bathroom without smashing a mirror. It’s the law.
Mikkelsen gives a hulking, bluff interpretation of a character who is so shut-down he can’t organize his priorities or admit that not all PTSD manifests itself on the battlefield. It’s poignant when Markus turns down professional help, offered at the hospital. It’s hilarious when Mikkelsen keeps the same dead-eyed stare with uncredentialed Lennart and even Mathilde’s “My mom’s a psychotherapist” teen boyfriend (Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt) offer theirs.
Kaas (of “Child 44”), Brygmann (“The Professor and the Madman”) and Bro (“Small Town Killers”) make a most engaging and flawed brainy trio to have tag-along with our “man with very particular skills.”
These characters, like our man-of-violence and his daughter, have personal journeys to make.
Hollywood treats the road to revenge as straight, narrow and bloody. With “Riders of Justice,” Jensen considers the myriad other places such a path can lead and finds regret, heart and humor along the way.
MPA Rating: unrated, very violent, profanity
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Andrea Heick Gadeberg, Lars Brygmann, Nicolas Bro and Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt
Credits: Scripted and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen. A Magnolia/Magnet release. (May 21).
Running time: 1:56