Dad revenge fantasies, we’ve had a few. From Death Wish (1974) to the Taken (2008-2014) series, the patriarch vendetta (the daddy-detta?) has given mature actors a new lease of life. Mel Gibson’s umpteenth rehabilitation project even boasted the on-the-nose title Blood Father (2016). They combine a do-not-go-gentle aspiration with a definite get-off-my-lawn vibe. And they’re more than a little bit silly. Which is why Anders Thomas Jensen’s new Danish thriller-comedy The Riders of Justice is such an entertaining twist on what has become a tired trope.

The film starts with a Sliding Doors series of coincidences – a bicycle is stolen, a train is caught, a man gives up his seat – which all prove retrospectively meaningful following a fatal train crash. One of the victims is Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind), mother of Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) and wife to soldier Markus (Mads Mikkelson). Markus returns to Denmark from his desert posting to look after his child and markedly not deal with his grief. Brushing off offers of therapy, Markus self-medicates with beer and brings a belatedly heavy hand to bear on Mathilde’s life, slapping her boyfriend when he dares to talk back.

Some possibility of redemption arrives in the form of Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a recently fired data analyst who was the man who gave up his seat so that Emma could sit down. Guilt-stricken, Otto also suspects that the train accident was not in fact an accident but the result of sabotage aimed at killing a witness to an upcoming trial that was going to put the leader of a criminal gang – The Riders of Justice – in jail. The police are skeptical so Otto and his eccentric friend Lennart (Lars Brygmann) take their evidence to Markus, who, finally able to channel his pent up fury, accepts it all too readily – leading to what blurb writers call a spiral of violence.

The twist is that the lone avenger is actually not alone. He is being facilitated by Otto and Lennart, who are soon joined by computer whiz and former French horn player Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro) and a trafficked Ukrainian sex worker, Bodashka (Gustav Lindh), who witnesses the first killing in Markus’s spree. Using Markus’s barn as their base of operations – Lennart expresses some solid barn appreciation – they explain their presence to Mathilde by posing as therapists, helping Markus to finally open up about his feelings.

The romantic irony of this (mix half a measure of undermining and half a measure of celebration) is that this hodge-podge improvised family does actually start to gel. These are all damaged individuals who have found release in the narrative logic revenge applies to their lives. Lennart’s eccentric behaviour is rooted in abuse he suffered as a child; Otto, despite seeming the most together of them all, has a disability which is linked to a dark history of loss and guilt.

Mads Mikkelsen and Andrea Heick Gadeberg in Riders of Justice

Mads Mikkelson, whose rise and rise continues unabated, plays Markus as the straight man whose PTSD bubbles with rage. The broader comedy of Brygmann and Bro is allowed plenty of room without upending the story, while Andrea Heick Gadeberg makes Mathilde much more than a simple daughter-in-distress. The ensemble works excellently together (Mikkelson, Bro and Lie Kaas have all appeared in several of Jensen’s previous films including 2015’s absurdist Men & Chicken). Given Jensen’s prolific experience as a screenwriter, the plot is as tidy as can be despite a labyrinthine series of twists and populated by fully realised characters who transcend their comedy stereotypes.

The absurdist comedy caper proves suitably fitting to a deconstruction of the revenge-fuelled plot. Just as Hamlet, with his antic disposition, always teeters on comedy, Jensen gives the whole facade a delighted shove. Without ever losing sight of the violence – and sometimes delighting in it – there’s also a deeper philosophical point. Ultimately, vengeance places some kind of order on an otherwise chaotic universe: ‘Time out of joint.’

Otto and Markus embrace revenge as a way of avoiding their own sense of culpability: if only Markus hadn’t accepted the extension of his deployment… if only Otto hadn’t changed seats… The ironic inversion is even apparent in the title: the Riders of Justice are not the righteous protagonists but the criminal biker gang they seek to destroy.

Jensen’s film works both as a tarmac-black comedy and as an exciting thriller. And with a coda featuring Mads Mikkelson in an ugly Christmas pullover, it also proves surprisingly touching as well.

Further reading

In Another Round, Mads Mikkelsen and pals uncork their spirits

Thomas Vinterberg’s not-so-blithe fable of four drinking buddies takes a deep look at the cup of life.

By Jessica Kiang

In Another Round, Mads Mikkelsen and pals uncork their spirits

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.