Riders of Justice (2021)

Men will literally gun down an entire biker gang by themselves instead of going to therapy.  The Danish dark comedy Riders of Justice is essentially a two-hour shitpost with that exact punchline, which you might not guess in its opening, somber first act.  Like Nobody, it’s a low-key parody of the suburban-dad revenge thrillers Liam Neeson’s been treading water in since Taken – especially his collaborations with Jaume Collet-Serra: The Commuter (Taken on a Train) and Non-Stop (Taken on a Plane).  In both instances, the humor of that parody is delayed; both Nobody & Riders of Justice open with a straight-faced first act that doesn’t prepare you for the over-the-top absurdist mayhem to follow.  Riders of Justice doesn’t play like a thriller in its opening half-hour.  It starts as a solemn, introspective drama about a train accident that tears a family apart by killing its matriarch.  Instead of healing from the pain of that tragedy through therapy, however, the surviving widower stubbornly creates an anti-hero action plot out of thin air, exacting violence on a terrorist biker gang he believes is responsible for the train wreck, as if that’s the easier path to healing from the loss.  The more that revenge mission spirals out of his control and the further he goes out of his way to avoid talking about his emotions, the funnier the joke becomes (and the higher the bodies pile).

Like Nobody‘s front-and-center, against-type casting of Bob Odenkirk, the main draw for most audiences to Riders of Justice will be seeing Mads Mikkelsen in the starring role as a grieving Military Dad on the warpath.  I’m largely indifferent to Mikkelsen myself (beside being impressed by those magnificent cheekbones), so I’m shocked to report I was way more satisfied with his star-vehicle Taken parody than Odenkirk’s.  All of Nobody‘s action genre signifiers are pulled directly from modern post-Taken and post-John Wick thrillers, leaving it with very little visual style to call its own outside the incongruity of seeing Odenkirk presented in that context.  Riders of Justice casts a much wider net in its own action genre parody, especially by the time Mikkelsen assembles a crack team of computer experts in an industrial barn to help track down the targets of his wrath.  Once the plot is in full swing, he stands as a lone machine-like killer among a house full of bickering nerds who constantly undercut the macho revenge fantasy of his one-man gang war with their own petty, unmanly quibbles.  It’s the same mode of comic relief that side characters like Tyrese & Ludacris provide to the Fast & Furious franchise, for instance, but it’s deliberately uncool & uncomfortable in a way that constantly underlines how much these men need professional help instead of guns & ammo.  Meanwhile, Mikkelsen’s job as the traditionally macho hero (and comedic straight man) is to maintain a seething, barely contained anger at the world at large for contrast against those nerds, and he’s great at it.

It helps that Riders of Justice is also about something beyond its satirical observations about the emphasis on violent revenge in macho action flicks like Taken & John Wick.  It makes room for lots of unexpected, heartfelt reflection on grief, abuse, “found family”, and the cruelty of coincidence, all delivered with a real sicko sense of humor.  The movie is outright philosophical in the way it interrogates our need to apply logical order to the chaos of random tragedies by filtering them through religious faith, statistical analysis, or violent retribution.  It also pays careful attention to its own visual style, however muted.  At the very least, I appreciated the way its motif of blue & orange crosslighting helped break up the earth tones of its militaristic anti-hero’s joyless, colorless life.  All of the promotional materials for Riders of Justice feature Mads Mikkelsen staring directly into the camera while modeling action-hero army gear, which makes the film look like a humorless bore.  It turns out the character himself is the bore, and the film finds lots of humor at the expense of his performative brutish exterior (after taking the time to seriously consider the emotional pain of the loss he’s suffered).  It takes an unusually long time for the anti-macho humor of its action genre parody to emerge, but thankfully that’s not the only thing on its mind.  If you’re looking for zanier or more immediate humor in your action movie parodies, there’s always MacGruber or Hot Shots or even the final hour of Nobody.

-Brandon Ledet

Rose Plays Julie (2021)

Rose Plays Julie is a subtle, well-made movie built on subtle, well-played performances.  A psychological thriller about a young veterinary student’s increasingly dark mission to uncover her place in the world as an unwanted adopted child (and, more to the point, about the generational trauma of sexual assault), it has all the potential in the world to swerve into a sensationalist rape revenge tale with a violently heightened sense of style.  Instead, it keeps its mood low-key & pained, allowing the Greek tragedy of its doomed characters’ downward trajectory to quietly unfold at its own pace.  It’s one of those thoughtful, tasteful indie chillers that I appreciate in terms of intent & craft but only help clarify my personal disinterest in subtlety & restraint.  I wish I could appreciate this quiet, finely calibrated psych-thriller on its own terms, but instead its coming-of-age fury & vet school setting just made me wish I was watching the explosive coming-of-age cannibal horror Raw instead.  That’s just the kind of audience I am, to my shame.

It’s okay that Rose Plays Julie works better as an exercise in craft than as a cathartic, stylistically expressive genre film.  It’s explicitly about performance in a lot of respects, which shines a direct spotlight on the actors in three central roles of Daughter (Ann Skelly), Mother (Orla Brady), and Rapist (Aiden Gillen).  Gillen puts in the same raspy creep performance he’s been delivering as a manner of routine since he was cast in Game of Thrones, but the drama is more centralized on the women he’s hurt anyway.  The mother is an actress by trade, shown avoiding her traumatic past by getting lost in her roles on period dramas & vampire movies.  The daughter—the surviving result of a rape—is an actress by choice, taking on her imagined persona of the name on her birth certificate (paired with an unconvincing wig) as an undetectable alias while pursuing revenge against the mother’s assailant, her “father”.  The tension between them is a feel-bad triangle of gloom that each actor ably performs through several layers of self-protective artifice.  The avenging violence that breaks that tension is just as dejectedly sad, providing little emotional catharsis for the generations of hurt at the film’s core – presumably on purpose.

To wish Rose Plays Julie was more expressive or cathartic would be wishing for a more divisive, if not outright irresponsible kind of filmmaking that it’s just not interested in indulging.  This is a very serious film about a very serious subject, and I’m sure there’s a larger audience out there who’d prefer that sober approach to genre storytelling over what’s usually offered.  Personally, I could only appreciate the craft of its individual performances rather than the larger purpose they served.  It’s a terrible thing to admit, but if it were even 10% trashier or flashier in its delivery, I’d probably be much more enthusiastic about where it fits in the modern revenge thriller canon.

-Brandon Ledet