If this were almost any other movie, you’d be able to write the rest of this review yourself. But from the tone of the early scenes, which make room for grace notes of characterization and performance, and allow the characters to get sidetracked into what only seem like irrelevant side discussions, you figure out that this is not the sort of movie that sets up the standard elements and switches to autopilot.
For one thing, Jensen makes Otto not merely the messenger who sets the tale in motion and then disappears, but a crucial second lead, and part of a trio filled out by a fellow probability expert named Lennart (Lars Brygmann), whose secret manias and aversions are a constant source of plot complications; and a tightly wound, emotional computer hacker named Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). All three characters are written and performed with such skill that they form a classic comedy trio: a motor-mouthed intellectual answer to the Three Stooges. Like Mathilde, Markus, and everyone else who passes in front of Jensen’s viewfinder, Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler are given complex, ultimately endearing backstories that feed into the script’s sincere fascination with fate, luck, chance, justice, karma, and other subjects rarely discussed in films where the hero is a frowny-faced bald dude who can snap a man’s neck like a shingle.
“All events are products of a series of preceding events,” Otto tells an assembled panel of corporate clients who reject an algorithm he and Lennart are trying to sell them. “Because we often have insufficient data, we categorize events as coincidences.” His statement echoes through later scenes, including the church service where Mathilde’s mother and Markus’s wife is laid to rest. “When miracles happen,” the priest says, “we often attribute a divine character to them. However, when lightning strikes, when tragedy becomes reality, we have a hard time assigning a return address, and thus we refer to it as coincidence.” Once the stooges enter Markus’ life, bloodshed follows, but not in a lockstep, predictable way, thanks to the pinball-machine collisions of all the strong personalities involved (in particularly Markus’s; he’s both hot-tempered and lethal, not an ideal combination).
The big question here is whether the train crash was a premeditated crime or the culmination of a series of things that quite simply happened. A large part of the charm of “Riders of Justice” (what an ironic title, in retrospect!) comes from the way that it keeps us guessing as to what side of the equation, so to speak, it’ll come down on, or whether it’ll take a position at all. What are we to make, for instance, of a seemingly precise calculation by Otto that the odds of that crash with that outcome were 234,287,121 to one? Or, for that matter, the movie’s wry awareness that no matter how bad things get, they could always be worse? “Only thing is, after all this crap, it’s unlikely more is going to happen,” Mathilde tells Otto. “That’s not how things work,” Otto replies. “A lot of awful things can happen in your life.”