Dad movies are back, baby–the guns, the beards, the revenge. The dadsploitation genre is all the rage right now [see L.A. Weekly‘s review of Guy Ritchie’s latest Wrath of Man], and the Swedish action-thriller Riders of Justice is here to capitalize on the moment. Mads Mikkelsen stars as the scruffy hero in this gloriously violent Taken knockoff, doing his own spin on Liam Neeson, as a husband and father with a particular set of violent skills. Directed by Swedish veteran Anders Thomas Jensen, the film tries for a fresh interpretation of the formula, but it nevertheless goes down a familiar path.
Mikkelsen (who most will recognize as the deliciously devious Lecter character from the series Hannibal and the villain in Doctor Strange) is perfect as the cold, blank-faced Markus, dispatched from the army after his wife is killed in a subway explosion. Though the police say it was an accident, Markus isn’t so sure. It isn’t normal for trains to just explode, is it? And it’s probably no coincidence that a member of the biker gang Riders of Justice was seen leaving just before the place blew up.
Some answers arrive in the form of Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a data analyst who was also on the subway. Otto shows up at Markus’ doorstep with his pal Lennart (Lars Brygman), explaining how he hacked into some servers and found out who was behind the bombing. When the police don’t listen to his story, Markus has no choice but to go rogue.
The tone of Riders is far more grim than the sardonic deadpan of Taken or the dazzling, played-for-laughs Nobody. The weight makes it feel depressing at times (do we really need so many shots of people crying?). But some scenes hit a real nerve, like the shootout in a field of dead leaves, frightened trees, trembling rain clouds and thundering wind chimes– clearly a reflection of Markus’ state of mind.
What’s even more unique, however, is that our lone ranger isn’t actually alone. He goes into battle with dumb and dumber (Otto and Lennart), and teams up with computer whiz Emmenthaler (Lars Brygmann) and Ukranian sex worker, Bodashka (Gustav Lindh), who saw the first killing in Markus’ spree. Using Markus’ barn as a base of operations, they set up their next move and learn how to assemble their weapons, as well as help Markus and his daughter, Mathilde, sort out their long-standing issues.
At the heart of the dadsploitation genre is the affection between a father and his offspring, and Mikkelsen has always had great chemistry with young actors. That spark in Riders comes from his scenes with Andrea Heick Gadeberg, who plays the kind yet distant daughter. It’s Mathilde’s younger, wiser perspective that pushes Markus to take control of his life. And shockingly, the tough guy is willing to grow and evolve, along with the genre itself–even if it is as bloody and violent as it’s always been.
Riders of Justice is in select theaters now.