Jennifer Garner Elevates the Problematic Peppermint
What would you do if you lost everything? What would you do if the people you love the most in the world were taken from you violently? It is a supremely identifiable scenario- and enduring fodder for action movie audiences for decades now. The latest story in this lineage is Peppermint, with Jennifer Garner returning convincingly and deservedly to her action roots. She is great, but it doesn't take very long to notice that she deserves a better movie. Peppermint is the kind of film where the most interesting aspects are what surfaces as far as depiction, endorsement, and representation.
Garner stars as Riley North, happily married and with a young daughter, struggling financially but still appreciating how great her life is. Then one night, a Mexican-American drug cartel targets her husband, who they believe was involved in a plot to rob them. While she survives, she loses her family. It's a horrific crime, and consistent with media depictions of the Cartels as heartless purveyors of extreme violence. After she identifies the perpetrators, she is victimized all over again by the weighted injustices of the criminal justice system, one that cartoonishly seems to favor the cartels and easy bribes. The bad guys go free. She responds by going off the grid for five years. Then one day, the bad guys on both sides of the law start dropping. Riley North is back–and during her time away, turned herself into a fucking commando–with only one goal in mind: revenge.
The vigilante movie was arguably invented by the 1974 Charles Bronson picture Death Wish, and continually re-visited through the years in different forms (The Punisher, The Brave One, Death Sentence, John Wick). There is some variability among these movies: sometimes the hero turns out to be an experienced warrior, sometimes they are ordinary citizens who turn to extreme measures to avenge a random crime, but they all tend to go down the same road. They end up being far more than the bad guys bargained for, and the body count elevates considerably all for the sake of revenge.
Many of them, end up being a little problematic. In these cases, the–usually white–protagonists end up targeting mostly brown skinned criminals, even if that protagonist starts with what appears to be the high moral ground. Considering the use of horrifically violent gangs like MS-13 to villify all Mexican immigrants, Peppermint in some ways comes off like Trumpian propaganda. Let's call it Trumpsploitation. The screenwriter, Chad St. John, seems to have seen this coming, and makes a few smart plot moves to make the film more defensible. You see, Riley has been laying low in "Skid Row," and wouldn't you know it–the crime rate there has been "safer than Bel Air" since she arrived–and the locals love her for it. Much like in the original Death Wish and the recent Eli Roth remake, citizens living in fear of crime and violence hoist her up like a guardian angel. This is all well and good, but anyone astute at media literacy can see this as a fairly obvious attempt to balance the scales, when the rest of the movie is of the caucasian Garner taking out droves and droves of stereotypical brown skinned criminals. A quick look at St. John's filmography will reveal that he also wrote the Gerard Butler action vehicle London Has Fallen, another movie where a white person takes out dozens and dozens of faceless brown people. I am never one to tell a movie what it should have done instead, except I will here. If the villains had been, say, the Aryan Brotherhood or any gang of white supremacists who have been terrorizing the country in recent years, this movie would have been immediately ten times better.
In a film of few pleasures, Peppermint at least builds up enough momentum to be quite watchable. Director Pierre Morrel (Taken, The Gunman) frames most of the action as quick, blurry and overly cut, although it isn't the worst example of this technique I have seen (consider that a compliment). It at least does not skimp on the blood and gore. Garner looks awesome holding heavy weaponry, and there are a few exciting and lengthy action sequences- a shootout in a Pinata store, an assault on a cartel compound. A strong supporting cast helps, with young genre stalwart John Gallagher Jr. (Short Term 12, Hush, The Belko Experiment) doing his best 70's mustachioed cop impression, along with John Ortiz and Juan Pablo Roba. In watching it with a crowd, it also gets plenty of approving hoots and hollers. All the while, I kept imagining what a Chad Stahelski, David Leitch, Justin Lin, or any number of other more competent action storytellers might have done with this premise. Jennifer Garner deserves a better movie for this very particular set of skills: somebody give it to her!
Peppermint opens today in Philly theaters.