Peppermint opens with a claustrophobic white-knuckle sequence of blunt force brutality – Jennifer Garner, its headlining star, swiftly and nearly wordlessly kicking the ass of a thug, even within the limiting confines of a beat-up old car. “Remember me?” she whispers to the thug, and surely he does. I remember, too – the short scene, that is, for it’s the last time the film is even remotely engaging.
That opening serves as a template for what the movie could’ve been – an episodic string of loosely connected action sequences that, if nothing else, would be entertaining within their own disjointed context. As it stands now, Peppermint is intended as earnest moment-of-truth drama meets ultraviolent exploitation flick, and the result is such an incoherent mess that it’s hard to tell what its title is supposed to mean, let alone make any sense of the on-screen exploits.
Garner cut her teeth as an ass-kicking heroine in the early-‘00s television gem, Alias, and she assumes the physicality quite comfortably here, far more comfortably than when she is saddled with heinous Movie-of-the-Week dialogue and made to over-emote her way between action set pieces. At least she retains a straight face throughout, a feat for which she should probably be considered for an Oscar. She plays Riley North, dedicated wife and mother, who is nevertheless viewed with utmost scorn by nearly everyone she encounters. The film’s first 15 minutes play out like a straight-faced live-action version of a Charlie Brown story – everyone keeps pulling the football away from poor Riley – and as if that wasn’t enough, she then watches as her husband and daughter are gunned down in cold blood. Of course, we are subjected to this relentless torment so we will cheer when, later on, Riley savagely murders each and every one of these nasty jerks.
To be clear, she doesn’t savagely murder all of them – only the really, really bad guys, although to be honest, the film is edited in such a way that it’s hard to tell who is getting murdered, or when. The “story” operates on a timeline in which its heroine is aggrieved, and then we leap forward five years, at which point she re-emerges as a sort-of combat master with no substantial clue to where she’s been or how she might ascend to such skilled vigilantism. We also don’t get to see her disperse of her family’s killers, thereby undercutting any sort of narrative resonance, however superficial and problematic. What’s quite clear, however, is who the bad guys are: Mexicans. Every last one of them. Peppermint presents as stereotypical a portrait of tattooed, drug-slinging, money-laundering Latino drug lords as you’re likely to find outside of a Trump rally, though I checked, and Steve Mnuchin is not credited as a producer, so the film’s regressive tendencies are apparently organic.
The result of Riley’s marauding through the gang-banging thug population of Los Angeles is rendering the infamous Skid Row district 100% crime-free, a development that is entirely laughable but also wholly mistreated by the film, which renders its central character’s relative superhero status as a crime stat side note. That’s standard for this screenplay, which is only capable of side notes and broad strokes, to such a degree that its intended twists seem to come as news to even the filmmakers. Pierre Morel is the director, he who gave us the original Taken, and now has delivered an unintentional parody of the modern revenge genre, which I suppose could be considered a full-circle accomplishment.