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Mads Mikkelsen plays Markus, a soldier in Afghanistan called back home after the death of his wife.Rolf Konow/Mongrel Media

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  • Riders of Justice
  • Written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen
  • Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Andrea Heick Gadeberg and Nikolaj Lie Kaas
  • Classification 14A; 116minutes

Critic’s Pick

It’s called Riders of Justice and it involves a man seeking revenge after his wife is killed in a train accident. When I first saw the synopsis, I nearly Liam-ed my Neeson as I cursed the gods for taking Charles Bronson too soon.

Thing is, this dandy foreign feature from Anders Thomas Jensen is only posing as a revenge film – clickbait for the violence junkies and the popcorn crowd. Yes, leading man Mads Mikkelsen plays a brooding killing machine out to avenge the loss of a loved one. But Riders of Justice, in Danish with English subtitles, is actually a pitch-black comedy about questions, coincidences and ideas that pile up faster than the body count.

Mikkelsen, familiar to many as the blood-eyed villain on the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale, has worked with Jensen previously. He’s Markus, a soldier in Afghanistan called back home after the death of his wife. The train crash in which she perished is ruled an accident. Suspicions that point otherwise are dismissed by authorities as coincidences.

At the funeral, a priest raises questions: “If everything is merely coincidences, isn’t the most natural reaction then to feel that nothing matters? Where do we go with all our anger, all our fears and loneliness?”

Markus is the film’s example of the first question’s thinking and the answer to the second. He drinks, shuts down and is of no comfort to his grieving daughter Mathilde, played Andrea Heick Gadeberg. She seeks to understand the tragedy, but her father wants none of it. “No good will come from talking about it,” he tells her.

Jensen has a reputation for evoking sympathy, no matter how peculiar the human weaknesses involved. It’s tough to feel sorry for Markus, though. The dude is stone cold – the hard Scandinavian rock off which everyone else bounces.

Soon after his wife’s funeral, Markus is presented with the theory that the accident was not that. Statistical anomalies point to an assassination orchestrated by a street gang seeking to eliminate a key witness set to testify against them.

The evidence was arrived at by a bickering trio of nerds led by a mild-mannered number cruncher who was on the train at the time of the crash. A socially awkward computer geek and a hacker who is hilariously unfiltered fill out the threesome.

The gang (who make the misfits of the 1999 superhero comedy Mystery Men look like the Mod Squad in comparison) join Markus in an alliance to avenge the death of the latter’s wife. They do their planning at Markus’s house, explaining their presence to the daughter by saying they are helping with her father’s “therapy.”

It’s a ruse, but is it? The planning for brutal reprisal is indeed therapy for the stoic widower. “Violence is the only solution strategy you know,” the daughter’s new-age boyfriend tells Markus after getting socked in the eye by him.

Although there is a late plot twist, the die has been cast. Heavy gunplay ensues.

Revenge is only part of Jensen’s untraditional and beautifully human film, not the point of it. Everyone has their personal train wrecks and everybody hurts. As for “why,” Jensen has no answers. His questions are the point.

Riders of Justice is available on-demand, including Apple TV/iTunes, starting May 21

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.