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Riders of Justice review – Mads Mikkelsen drives a fun revenge thriller

The Danish actor delivers another fine turn in an entertaining action-comedy that doesn't always get the balance right

It's easy to forget that Mads Mikkelsen initially made his name in scuzzy Danish underworld thrillers, most notably Nicholas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy. It’s this sort of territory, albeit in a more lighthearted form, that Anders Thomas Jensen’s Riders of Justice pulls the actor back into, playing a soldier hunting down the bikers that may have been behind a train crash that killed his wife.

Markus (Mikkelsen) is a Danish squad leader in Afghanistan sent home after hearing the horrible news to grieve and care for his daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). Though the authorities and media are quick to deem the crash an accident and move on, recently fired statistician Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), who survived the crash after giving his seat to Markus’s wife, sees a pattern that points to the accident being cover for an assassination by far-right gang Riders of Justice.

Eager to have someone to blame, and deeply unwilling to work through his feelings peacefully, Markus latches onto Otto and hatches a plan of violent vengeance, bringing in hacker Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and facial recognition expert Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) to help with the hunt. Mikkelsen does strong work here, able to deftly navigate Jensen’s pinballing tone, even if the rest of the cast have a slightly tougher time keeping the balance.

Jensen wants us to genuinely care about his characters as human beings, but also can’t resist peppering in very broad jokes – Lennart in particular mostly exists to dish out and receive punchlines. It means that Riders of Justice is fun in the moment (the two hour runtime mostly whips by), but its attempts at climactic emotional scenes fall flat, not quite earning our investment.

A lot of the time this doesn’t hugely matter thanks to a propulsive and funny central plot as Markus shapes the rest of his team into something resembling a useful squad, and the gunfights are well-handled, quick and extremely lethal. But there is a thinness to proceedings that gets more and more noticeable as time goes on and the sweeter scenes of the characters bonding and trying to help one another through some misunderstood pop-psychology become fewer and further between.

This sloppiness is made more disappointing by the glimpses of sharp, incisive analysis that pop up occasionally, from very telling and funny character details delivered in a single visual gag to Jensen’s study of the domino effects Markus and others’ actions have. The world of Riders of Justice is both a very big and very small place where the most innocuous action in Estonia can eventually have enormous consequences in Afghanistan via a misunderstanding in Egypt, but Jensen’s wit is sometimes ill-served by the trappings of a revenge thriller.

When it finds the right gear, Riders of Justice is very enjoyable, the sort of bombastic, lowbrow, purely entertaining European thriller that rarely finds its way into UK cinemas. It’s hardly going to stick with you, but if a shaven-headed Mads Mikkelsen decimating racists in a shootout before grimacing his way through impromptu family therapy with his daughter’s new-age boyfriend sounds like your idea of a good time, it'll make for uncomplicatedly fun Friday night viewing.

Riders of Justice is released in cinemas on 23 July.

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