Jennifer Garner Delivers Mixed Messages in Pulpy Revenge Drama
Starring Jennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr. and John Ortiz
Directed by Pierre Morel
“What’s in your wallet?” That’s what Jennifer Garner wants to know in TV commercials for a popular credit card.
In her latest movie, she’s wants something else, and raises some much harder questions.
The title may suggest a sugar-sweet, candy-coated treat. But this flick is a violent, hardcore action revenge fantasy about a woman who takes the law into her own hands when her husband and daughter are killed in a drive-by shooting by members of a Mexican drug cartel.
Her daughter was eating a cone of peppermint ice cream when she died.
The cartel members, affiliated with a powerful drug czar (Juan Pablo Raba) with connections everywhere—including the LAPD and the courts—are rounded up and arrested, but walk free from the courtroom.
Garner plays Riley North, who is also seriously injured in the shooting, and ordered to a psychiatric hospital to recover. But she escapes and disappears, reemerging five years later to find the men who killed her family and become their judge, jury and executioner.
And while she’s taking out the trash, so to speak, she does the same to a lot of other guys, too.
“What do you want?” one of her victims-to-be asks her. “I want justice,” Riley answers.
We know when we see her, in the back of her beat-up van, closing up a gaping wound with a staple gun and duct tape, she means business. A couple of LAPD detectives (John Gallagher Jr. and John Ortiz) are always one step behind her.
This theme—of the citizen vigilante—has certainly been explored in movies before. Most famously, Charles Bronson launched the whole Death Wish franchise back in the 1970s, and the Taken series made Liam Neeson an action star. (French director Pierre Morel, who directed the first Taken, is also the director of Peppermint.)
The twist here is that it’s a woman—not Bronson, not Neeson, and not Denzel Washington, Clint Eastwood, Jamie Foxx, Keanu Reeves, or any one from a long list of other macho male Hollywood stars—doling out the deadly damage. But Garner isn’t exactly an out-of-nowhere choice. Remember she was a lethal weapon in the action-packed TV espionage series Alias from 2001 to 2006, playing double agent Sydney Bristow, a globe-trotting killing machine?
And she certainly hasn’t lost any of her, ahem, skills. I lost count of just how many guys are dispatched in Peppermint, but it’s certainly upward of 40. How many places can a guy be shot? Well, as Riley demonstrates, with an arsenal of weaponry that looks like a PSA for the NRA, there’s the face, the foot, the leg, the chest. They can also be stabbed, especially in the throat. Or crushed by a falling desk. Or blown to smithereens (with “explosive cord”).
It’s not just the body count that might make you wince. The sight of a white woman laying waste to just about every Hispanic and Latino character she encounters doesn’t exactly align with what a lot people might think of as racial sensitivity, especially at a moment in time when tensions are heightened about issues of immigration and cultural assimilation.
Early in the movie, in a flashback, Riley tells her young daughter that it’s not OK to be a bully, because “then you’re just as bad as they are.” The movie can’t keep its messages straight; when Riley goes on her wholesale slaughter spree of cartel members, and everyone associated with them, doesn’t it make her “as bad” as they are?
Director Morel doesn’t do anything terribly original here; he’s working from a paint-by-numbers script and using stock characters that look and sound like they came straight from central casting. But he doesn’t have to do much; this is a red-meat movie for people who are fed up, like Riley. She’s lost her family, but a lot of other people are just fed up, and pent up, period, about, well…whatever. And maybe this will be like a big stress valve, a relief and release, like a vicarious shooting gallery. Watch Riley mess up the bad guys—bam, bam, bang, bang, stab, stab—and maybe you’ll feel a little better.
Or maybe not.
Peppermint won’t be for everybody. It’s pulpy, gritty, trashy and down-low, and its racial overtones are difficult to dismiss. But Jennifer Garner is a dead-serious “avenging angel,” action-flick fans will likely lap it up, and it’s a welcome, you-go-girl gender-twist on the format.
So…what’s in your wallet?
In theaters Sept. 7, 2018