Peppermint isn’t a very good movie, which is so plainly obvious from everything about it that it might as well be the tagline, but it’s fascinating for what it says about the state of the film industry. Directed by Pierre Morel, a sort of Eurotrash Neveldine/Taylor knockoff best known for Taken and District B13, and written by “Chad St. John,” who I assume is a porn star, Peppermint is a revenge film cut from the cloth of a long line of grimy grindhouse shoot ’em ups in which Caucasian vigilantes take out the largely brown trash.
In the past these would’ve been strictly skuzzball affairs, movies made largely by and for smelly, leather-jacketed obsessives — Death Wish being the most well-known, though it almost doesn’t count, since it had a higher budget than its peers, was based on a novel, and, in stark contrast to Peppermint, at least attempted to have some kind of social commentary (even if that commentary was largely limited to “even liberals can become fascists when ethnic thugs kill their family”).
These days, weirdly, instead of a gremlin-faced fringe character actor like Charles Bronson, our violence porn for sweaty weirdos is toplined by the same actors who sell us soap, in this case America’s sweetheart, Jennifer Garner. And they’ve surrounded her with prestige cable character actors like John Ortiz from Togetherness and John Gallagher Jr. from The Newsroom. Method Man even shows up at one point. The contrast makes one wonder: is this supposed to be for adults, like the ones who like John Ortiz and John Gallagher Jr., or for repressed post-adolescents who love revenge porn? Is post-adolescent sweatiness just mainstream now?
Okay, sure, half the draw of Peppermint was surely the chance to see a sweet soccer mom like Jennifer Garner pop skulls like grapes with Glocks and Mossburgs (yes, I know she was in Alias and The Kingdom so this isn’t entirely new). Garner plays Riley North (another porn star name), a spunky bank teller whose husband and young daughter get gunned down in front of her by uzi-wielding gangbangers with face tattoos before they can finish their peppermint ice cream. Sheesh, this dang MS-13 is out of control, it’s enough to make you want to build a wall. (Also, who the hell eats peppermint ice cream? That’s gross, even if it is Christmas)
This is a plug-and-play premise tailor-made for the director of Taken, that famous kidnap-revenge movie about a wronged white dad with a “particular set of skills.” The interesting thing about Peppermint is that Jennifer Garner doesn’t have a particular set of skills. She’s just a bank teller, and the few scenes of her pre-tragedy offer no hint that when pushed, killin’ will come as easy as breathin’. There’s a five-year time lapse between Riley’s family getting murdered and her returning to LA as an avenging vigilante assassin, during which we see her fight MMA in Europe (lol) on YouTube and robbing a bank in grainy surveillance cam pics. But no real hint as to how she became an ass-kicker.
This would seem to be the central question of this narrative. In Taken the answer was spoken aloud: he had a very particular set of skills, skills he had acquired over a very long career. Even in Death Wish most of the character arc came from watching the lead slowly transition from a mild-mannered architect into a stone cold killer. It was gradual. In Peppermint, there is no transition. Riley North is a bank teller selling Girl Scout cookies in one scene, and in the next she’s snapping knees and exploding heads. The film even teases an explanation for Riley’s transformation a few times, most directly in the form of an FBI agent played by Annie Ilonzeh asking John Gallagher Jr.’s detective character “Wouldn’t you like to know what Riley’s been up to for the last five years?”
YES, WE WOULD. That Peppermint never tells us is either boldly unpredictable or the film’s glaring flaw (or perhaps part of an overly ambitious plan for future sequels). To me, it feels like a case of too stupid or not stupid enough. Rather than revealing how she learned to murder every tattooed Latino in LA, we get an unconvincing heel turn from one of the characters and a strange subplot about how Riley cleaned up Skid Row. “We don’t need police, we have an angel,” says one Skid Row resident.
An angel, huh? That would seem to put a fine point on the whole “white savior” thing, wouldn’t it? You’d almost think Chad St. John was a satirist, but there’s no real indication of that.
A film this derivative reveals much through what it chooses to explore and what it chooses to yada-yada-yada. Somewhere between Death Wish and Peppermint we stopped caring about the why or even the how of retributive violence. Ten years from now we may just get a 90-minute montage of heads exploding. Starring Zooey Deschanel!