“Peppermint,” as the name implies, is a sickeningly hilarious dark comedy lurking in the awful revenge actioner “Peppermint.” It’s more than likely not the film Pierre Morel and Chad St. John intended to make. In “Peppermint,” a recently widowed mother tries to seek vengeance on the cartoonishly evil Latino drug dealers that murdered her husband and young daughter. Following a generally awful experience, Riley North (Garner) goes on a rampage despite obvious psychological trauma that she refuses to treat. Despite the fact that she has been given Lithium and anti-psychotic drugs, Riley’s volatility is so apparent—represented periodically by sped-up, out-of-focus, and over-exposed subjective camera work—that no one in authority takes her word when she claims to recall the faces of the three men who murdered her family.
Even though her spouse and kid’s murderers—a group of joint-smoking, booze-drinking, gun-toting monsters—are still on the run, the system is rigged, and other complaints that were made in the 1980s by underwhelming sequels and ripoffs to “Death Wish” remain valid (though not necessarily better). Somebody must pay; even if Riley’s PTSD-like breakdowns suggest that she shouldn’t be airing her spleen by murdering every complicit and therefore apparently deserving person she can find. But, again: “Peppermint” isn’t a jab at Riley’s privilege. She’s simply a white woman who exists to rail against a misfunctioning legal system and kill a crew of stereotypically brutal Latino gangsters who operate in a piñata store (as announced three times during a news report within the film). How can this not be considered a dark comedy about our present-day difficulties?
The people behind “Peppermint” might be French or Chinese, but the film’s main character still (unintentionally) exemplifies an ugly form of contemporary American thinking that claims that you are the one who is really being harassed if someone tells you that you are bullying them. You don’t even need evidence to support your counterclaim. Take a look at how Riley’s creators defend their choice to use racist caricatures as straw men opponents.
Riley’s actions are said to be acceptable because of her self-perception as a working-class martyr. She isn’t as wealthy as Peg (Pell James), a stuck-up rival mother who, in a flashback, scolds Riley and her daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming) by claiming that they aren’t genuine Girl Scout material. However, we’re supposed to believe that Riley’s rage represents Los Angeles’ frustrated and disaffected citizens, as seen in a flurry of tweets (showcased during the cops’ official investigation of Riley’s crimes) and one wall mural that is erected in “Skid Row” part of town (identified as such by a Google Maps-like search, also during a police investigation). Because Riley is up against an invincible criminal Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), a high-powered crime boss who’s protected by an LAPD mole, a high-powered lawyer, and corrupt judges. So it’s up to Riley to do what a corrupted system won’t allow: repeat the same things that Frank Castle, Paul Kersey, Harry Callahan, John Rambo, the Duke, the Boondock Saints ,and everyone else in the pantheon of Red-Blooded American Avengers did.
The only problem I have with cheering for Riley is that there’s more evidence to suggest that she’s a highly productive (but also kind of goofy?) monster than there is proof that she’s an antihero. Riley threatens Peg with a gun until James’ character urinates all over himself. She then stabs Harlan’s character, and he blows up. Riley also wields a firearm that is roughly at least as big as Garner’s. When she breaks into Garcia’s home, she prowls around like Steven Seagal at a food buffet, holding her enormous rifle in front of her like a you’ve-got-it idea.
Everything about Riley’s background and circumstances should make her appear more sympathetic. Unfortunately, Morel frequently comes across as more pleading than eager to please. We see in a flashback that Riley’s employer despises her and makes her work late on her daughter’s birthday on Christmas Eve. At that very moment! How could you not root for Riley, who is forced to commit a crime against her husband (Jeff Hephner) but is so innocent that he submits before being able to spend time with his family, making his death all the more tragic? Take another peek at the horrendous people she’s up against! Garcia’s men are defined by their gaudy surroundings, whether it be the Las Vegas-chic (marble tiles and glass decanters) of his home or the Grim Reaper-like Santa Muerte effigy that ostentatiously looms over his many warehouses.
And don’t get me started on the inevitable unmasking of the double agent who’s secretly working for Garcia. Morel also tries to head off accusations of racism by casting the two cops and an FBI agent who examine Riley’s case—played by John Ortiz, John Gallagher Jr., and Annie Ilonzeh—as a racially mixed and gender-balanced team. And don’t get me started on how soon you’ll learn that the double agent is working for Garcia. Ortiz goes even further, claiming that “the difference between [the cops and Garcia’s men] is that cops should care while criminals simply don’t.”
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All of this self-pitying is essential to the film’s story and message, but it is not in the manner Morel believes. His lip service apology for the film’s inherent sketchiness does not excuse the sickening display of Garner shooting and carving her way through a horde of stick figure bad guys, but rather suggests that the film’s protagonist is unwittingly promoting the same imbalanced system of power against which she protests, no matter how many dead family members or POC allies have her back. “Peppermint” is amusing in an unintentional sort of way.
Directed by: Pierre Morel
Written by: Chad St. John
Produced by: Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Richard S. Wright
Starring: Jennifer Garner, John Ortiz, John Gallagher Jr., Juan Pablo Raba, Tyson Ritter
Release date: September 7, 2018
Running time: 101 minutes
Country: United States