Profoundly wrongheaded and utterly braindead, the only saving grace of Peppermint is that it’s unintentionally the funniest film of the year.
Peppermint, which I’m assured is a real movie and not some elaborate parody of one, made for perhaps the most enjoyably hilarious 100 minutes of my year. Which isn’t to say that it’s any good – it’s actually appalling. It also isn’t to say that the film is trying to be funny in any way, because on the contrary it’s a deathly serious and politically–charged vigilante story that plays like Steve Bannon fell asleep reading Bell Hooks with Death Wish playing in the background and had a wet dream about it.
The plot concerns Riley North (Jennifer Garner), a suburban working mother whose cute daughter (Cailey Fleming before she was Judith Grimes) and husband (Jeff Hephner) are gunned down in a drive-by shooting by nondescript Latino gangbangers with face tattoos. Thanks to corruption or general incompetence or a combination of the two, the justice system fails to do much with the perpetrators despite the fact that their defence attorney visits Riley personally to vaguely threaten her – a fact which she inexplicably fails to mention until the judgment has already been passed. Either way, they get away with it, and Riley has an embarrassingly over-the-top courtroom meltdown and disappears.
Five years later, Riley returns as a highly-trained martial arts wizard and firearms expert having knocked off the bank she worked for and presumably spent the dough on private tutoring with John Wick. At this point she violently executes and publicly displays those responsible for her family’s death and goes to work dismantling the cartel they’re associated with, as Peppermint comically makes no real distinction between MS-13-style street gangs and high-level international trafficking operations – they’re just collapsed into the same vaguely-Latin global menace and presented as such entirely without irony.
As an example of how generally incompetent this film is, consider the following. Peppermint introduces Riley as an avenging angel offing the ethnic criminal contingent of Los Angeles with ruthless efficiency, and then flashes back to her as an overworked suburbanite, which is entirely the wrong way around if we’re supposed to buy into her vigilantism being the result of personal trauma and a failed justice system. Then she immediately takes out those directly responsible for her personal trauma first and targets their identikit henchmen second. Again, wrong way around.
It’s hardly a big deal, but it’s symptomatic of a movie that really is as stupid as it seems, and when you realise that it’s much harder to dismiss how blatantly it leverages stereotypes and media-fuelled racial panic to entice and embolden whatever slice of the movie-going public was crying out for Francine Castle. Even then, though, The Punisher has typically exploited rather nonspecific organised crime paranoia; Peppermint is stoking contemporary and incendiary racial stereotyping and doing so in a way that is shameless and flagrant, but also so cartoonishly over-the-top as to be hysterical – if it wasn’t so dangerously retrograde in the meantime.
Case in point: Whenever the villains are busy doing villainous things, the camera is always careful to take in cultural statues surrounded by votive candles that are apparently integral components of gangland hideouts – it’s the most egregious equivalence of culture with criminality since the authorities in Sicario: Day of the Soldado realised that Islamic terrorism was afoot because they found a couple of prayer rugs. Oh, and for at least part of the film the bad guys operate out of a f*****g piñata factory.
It isn’t that all this s**t is flat-out racist, but it is idiotically short-sighted and quite clearly intended as a conservative dog-whistle to disguise the fact that the actual movie has nothing to it beyond drudgery and gimmickry. Jennifer Garner is embarrassing in the dramatic scenes, and while she’s perfectly fine in the action business, the action business is also just perfectly fine, which hardly seems like enough.
If the goal of Peppermint is female empowerment, I’m not sure how it hopes to accomplish that by ensuring that female-led action movies can be just as terrible and misguided as those starring men. That’s like making someone taller by putting them on a torture rack. I imagine the film’s objective is more gun-empowerment; why else would the homeless shanty community where Riley has her hideout contain a giant mural depicting her as an armed angel whose wings are comprised of bullets? Peppermint does indeed fire shots, but they’re all targeted at the film’s feet.