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Riders of Justice writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen opens up to Aaron Yap about grimly funny fairy-tales, woke teenagers and creating an accidental Christmas movie with hunky muse, Mads Mikkelsen.
“Genres, that’s just a sales tool really. That’s to give people, show people, ‘are we having sushi or are we having Italian?’ Sometimes I like it when you don’t know what you’re getting.” —⁠Anders Thomas Jensen
It’s stupidly easy to sell writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen’s new film Riders of Justice on its thirsty pulp appeal alone. Who can resist the promise of Danish acting force Mads Mikkelsen finally getting a decent John Wick-ish vehicle of his own, stoically meting out anguished, bloody vengeance to a cadre of underworld thugs? Certainly not, among many Letterboxd members, Harlequinade, who was moved to write this ode:
“MikkelGod sporting a bushy beard
MikkelGod wearing a military uniform
MikkelGod wearing a suit
MikkelGod having this whole silverfox daddy thing going on
MikkelGod killing a man with his big beautiful bare hands
But to dismiss Riders of Justice as another entry in the seemingly endless slew of action-revenge pics would also be to undersell its other layers. Much more than Wick, your average Liam Neeson thriller-of-the-month, or even the recent avenging-dad flick, Nobody, Riders positions itself in a more emotionally and psychologically rewarding space, one perhaps closer to its tonally fluid South Korean counterparts. “What lingers,” Douglas Davidson writes, “are the questions Anders presents and the strange hopefulness that flickers upon the credits roll, burning like the embers of a dying fire in the darkness of night.”
It’s of a piece with all of Jensen’s directorial work thus far. A prolific screenwriter who’s penned everything from soulful early Susanne Bier heartbreakers to the recently misfiring The Dark Tower adaptation, Jensen, as a director, has found a sharply honed groove in the form of grimly funny, genre-defying modern fairy-tales populated by oddball characters forced to contend with the chaos of the inscrutable cosmos around them.
Causality plays an even more pronounced role in Riders. The film’s unlikely heroes—hard-bitten special forces soldier Markus Hensen (Mikkelsen) and a trio of bumbling data wizards (Lars Brygmann and Jensen regulars Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Nicolas Bro)—are drawn together to take down a vicious biker gang, but also preoccupied with processing the hows and whys of grief and trauma, and of course, the value of revenge.
Amid the terse blasts of gunfire, the film foregrounds scenes of connection and healing between its characters, an assortment of progressive teens and bumbling middle-aged men whose unusual found-family dynamic recalls Jensen’s previous dark, offbeat comedies like Adam’s Apples and Men and Chicken. As More_Baddass writes, the film gifts us some “Christmastime therapy of an unorthodox family”.
Over Zoom, we spoke about whether it’s possible to make Mikkelsen less handsome, why Denmark won’t be getting a sci-fi blockbuster anytime soon, and the time that Jensen and a friend tried to break the Guinness World Record for movie-watching.
Riders of Justice is one of your more action-packed films. Did you watch any other action flicks, or were there any specific movies that inspired you while you were designing and creating the action in this film?
Anders Thomas Jensen: It’s funny, because it’s always subconscious. I never look for inspiration directly because for me, that would be weird to do because then you’re just copying. Definitely in the back of my mind, there’s a lot of action movies and a lot of revenge movies that I’ve seen in the past that will work their way in there. The process for me is very, how do you say, unconscious? What’s it called?
Intuitive, that’s the word. Thank you. First of all, a revenge movie is not easy, but it always has a strong lead and it has a strong will, which is obviously really good if you want to do a script that moves forward. Hamlet is a revenge story, right? I love Once Upon a Time in the West. I love that. The Searchers. The Sting, I guess, is also a revenge movie. Also, there’s so much identification in people who are wronged.
Yeah that too. It’s one of the obviously basic human feelings. Revenge, love. There are these emotions that you’ll do dramas based on long after we were here.
I understand that you took a break from directing for a while and you were spending time raising your family. I’ve noticed, with Men & Chicken and Riders of Justice there’s a lot of attention paid to parenthood, and the role of the parent. Was that intentionally woven into these narratives and something you were thinking of?
Yeah. I don’t do it on purpose, but I can definitely see that every movie I ever made I’m very much a part of it. So the whole father story is part of my life in this movie. I have a teenage daughter who I sometimes feel like … I don’t at all have the emotional tools that she and her friends have. This new woke generation that I’m aware of; every single feeling and the environment and everything. I was brought up in a different way. So that’s quite personal in the story, the whole ‘father who has to learn how to communicate through feelings when he’s not very good at it’.
Would you consider Riders of Justice a Christmas movie?
Well, it’s so funny because I didn’t see it at all before one of my editors said. No, I wouldn’t because I didn’t pay attention to it at all. The only reason it ends on Christmas is because that’s the perfect coming together of a family. I needed it in the end, but it could have been Easter, but it wasn’t. Perhaps it is a Christmas movie now because it does have Christmas in it.
What was the first film that made you want to be a filmmaker?
There are several, but I think the first time I had was Lawrence of Arabia. I saw that when I was very little, when I perhaps shouldn’t have seen it. But when I was around ten, I got a bootleg copy of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. VCRs were a brand new thing and we got a VCR. I saw that film every day for half a year and I still know every line in it. It’s not getting out of my head. I love that film and I think from there on, I knew that I wanted to do films.
As a screenwriter, do you have any other screenwriters that you respect and admire?
I have many. Billy Wilder is one of my favorites. Also, Ingmar Bergman, the Coen Brothers, Robert Towne, but many others also. There are a lot of good screenwriters.
I can see elements of those writers coming through your work, especially the first three. You’re really good at blending elements from different genres and putting strange characters together. Are there any other genres you want to explore that you haven’t yet?
Well, it’s funny because every time I open up a new streaming service, I look for sci-fi movies first. I’m part of the Academy and when I get the screeners, I’m always checking for sci-fi. I have a love for sci-fi, but unfortunately I’m born in a country where doing a sci-fi film would just be insane. It’s never been done. If you have a really big budget, you have five to six million here. So it’s just something that won’t happen. But of course, you could get ambitious and write a sci-fi movie and hope you could do it somewhere else. I hope one day [to] do a good sci-fi movie, or at least something within that genre because it is a favorite.
But I also have to say, basically, I love all genres. Perhaps not rom-com that much, but I really like Westerns. I like war movies, revenge movies, dramas. I love to mix genres. Every time I do a movie, I get this from the distributors: “What are we going to call it?” Because it is this mix of genres. Genres, that’s just a sales tool really. That’s to give people, show people, “are we having sushi or are we having Italian?” So people don’t get confused. But I think sometimes I like it when you don’t know what you’re getting. That’s also what I love about the Coen Brothers and other directors that play with genres, is that I never know where it’s going.
Let’s talk a little about Danish cinema. You have your Lars von Trier, you have your Vinterberg and Susanne Bier. Is there an older Danish film that you would recommend that people should see?
I actually thought about it and it’s going to sound arrogant, but I couldn’t find one. Not when I compare to what else is out there of American, French, Italian, British, German, Russian and Asian. No, there isn’t. Of course there’s Carl Dreyer. He’s an icon in early, early cinema. That’s the obvious thing to say, but no. For me, Danish cinema starts in the ’90s. Also, I haven’t watched many Danish movies before that, because there aren’t that many. Some people will hate me for saying this, but that’s how I feel.
Are there any recent Danish films or filmmakers that you can recommend?
This year I saw a film called Shorta, which was great. It was made by two directors with no budget, about two cops venturing into this Muslim part of Copenhagen where there’s a riot. That was really a promising debut. Also, I really like the idea they had. They made a lot of great stuff visually and for almost no money.
What are your movie-watching habits? You said when you turn on a streaming service, you look out for sci-fi movies. Do you have any other weird behaviors?
It’s crazy, but if I really like a movie, I see it many times. I also see it many times where I do not look at it. I hear it. I will just lie with my back to it and just hear the movie. Actually, if the movie is really good, it also works without the picture.
I think that’s [as] weird as it gets, otherwise I’m pretty much normal. I used to binge-watch. Actually, I tried to get into a Guinness Book of Record with a friend when I was fifteen, where, for five days continuously, we watched movies. I can’t remember if it was 107 movies. We watched movies and we had a video store sponsor us. We were lying in an all-night video store, and just saw films until we collapsed. That’s the craziest thing I’ve done, but we never got into the book because there are people that are better at not sleeping, so somebody else beat the record by far.
Do you have a list, or a record of what you watched?
No, but there was a journalist that asked us what number afterwards. He asked me, “What film was the film number? 47, 46?” I remember him being very impressed that I could differentiate them.
It would have made a great Letterboxd list. Preserve it for eternity.
The funny thing is years after I would actually see a film, and I would get an hour into it and I would go, “Oh, I’ve seen this one.” It was because when I saw the last 30 films, I was unconscious.
I need to ask about Mads Mikkelsen because he’s massive with our community. You’ve worked with him for quite a long time now, so you’ve got a pretty solid working relationship. Having just watched a number of your films in a short period of time, it was impressive that you found that range in him that maybe other filmmakers haven’t tapped into. Is there a type of role that you want to see him in that he hasn’t had a chance to play yet?
Yes. There are many roles, but I don’t know. I could put a job description or a feeling on it, but it’s much more complicated with Mads, I think. We have this common thing that we love exploring people who lie to themselves, whether it’s comedy or drama. People who are not being honest with themselves and people who have this screwed up self-image, which in all the films we’ve done together, his character has. There are many other characters I would love to explore with Mads.
His looks are quite specific in each film. He just looks like a different person each time, which is great. You just want to see how he is going to look in the next one.
His wife is like that too. She’s always excited and she was so happy this time because he wasn’t ugly. Normally he doesn’t look very well, like in The Green Butchers. Because he’s so handsome, so I try to do him not so handsome.
Riders is the hunkiest he’s been in your films, I guess.
Definitely. The competition isn’t tough, though. You’re up against a guy who masturbates and a guy with a bad receding hairline. But it is by far his most hunky.
‘Riders of Justice’ is screening now in select US theaters and available on demand. Images courtesy of Magnet Releasing.