By: Hawk Ripjaw (Six Pack) –
Do you enjoy a solidly crafted revenge/vigilante thriller? Well, Peppermint would like to tell you to go fuck yourself!
One of 2018’s worst movies opens on Riley North (Jennifer Garner) viciously killing a thug inside a car. If you’re wondering how this specifically plays into what happens in the movie, keep wondering. Riley works as a bank teller, struggling to make ends meet with her husband Chris (Jeff Hephner), a mechanic. Their daughter Carly sells girl scout cookies but is harassed by Peg (Pell James), a rich rival mother. On the night of Carly’s birthday party, Riley is forced to work late at her job, but comes home to find that Peg has invited all of the kids to her own party, ruining Carly’s. Riley suggests they all go to the fair, in a manner that is far too enthusiastic to not be foreshadowing some awful tragedy.
Chris has been talking with a friend about being the getaway driver for a big heist from a dangerous cartel. At the last minute, Chris calls and cancels. But the leader of the cartel, Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), the kind of guy who has a punching bag in his office, wants to send a message anyway. At the fair, members of the cartel and their multitude of neck tattoos drive by and gun down the family. Chris and Carly don’t make it. Riley successfully identifies the thugs in a lineup, refusing a hefty bribe from a defense attorney to lie. Unfortunately, the cartel has the DA and the judge on their payroll, and the criminals walk free.
Five years later, Riley reemerges from hiding, having spent time abroad training her body and mind to visit her wrath on everyone involved in the corrupt system that let her family’s killers walk free, and then every other supposed member of the cartel. I don’t want to say things start to get a little racist, but there’s a pretty specific stereotype that Riley appears to want to go after (and they own/operate out of a pinata shop, if you had any doubts). As the bodies pile up, Detective Stan Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) and his partner Moises Beltran (John Ortiz) start to look into Riley’s past, with Carmichael especially interested in finally taking down the cartel.
Jennifer Garner’s performance punctuates the entire movie, from her first appearance to her last. Garner is intense, emotional, and believable as a grieving figure. I’ve always been a fan of Jennifer Garner, even as her films rarely do justice to her skill as an actress. Peppermint may be one of the starkest examples of that dichotomy of a great actress in a lousy film, and Garner’s playing a character way more interesting than the movie wants to explore.
One important element of any truly great revenge film is to show how the protagonist’s path changes them. Peppermint lays some of that groundwork of Riley being a kind, loving mother whose grief and thirst for justice turns her into a cold-hearted killer. Unfortunately, this change isn’t really shown, and instead we just get two flavors of Riley: mom Riley and killer Riley. Neither the physical or psychological change is shown in Riley from ordinary suburban mom to Skid Row Avenger, so there’s no progression as a character, and no emotional payoff to seeing her good-hearted self stripped away as she becomes more fixated on vengeance.
This bizarre structure makes the film feel not only unfinished, but significantly longer than its modest 100 minute running time would suggest. After a fairly brief flashback that gives Riley her motivation, the remainder of the film feels like a latter-second-act, mid-third-act romp while Riley shoots her way through Skid Row’s criminal underbelly. The movie wastes no time getting from one action sequence to the next, shortchanging every other plot and character element and ironically deflating any sense of momentum.
There’s also a bizarre overuse of that Tony Scott Man on Fire afterimage that doesn’t seem to have any real thematic or artistic reason for being used other than someone apparently thinking it looks kind of cool in an early 2000s action movie sort of way. It doesn’t.
For what is apparently supposed to be a revenge movie, there’s very little of it happening in Peppermint. Nearly all of the people directly responsible for the murder of Riley’s family and the subsequent miscarriage of justice are denied an onscreen comeuppance. The three original perpetrators are shown hanging by their legs from a Ferris Wheel, but we don’t see how Riley dispatched them. Riley certainly gives the corrupt judge a lengthy and frankly pretty fucked up death involving nails and exploding rope, but the deaths of the other corrupt officials are merely mentioned in passing conversation. When the movie spends two whole scenes showing what a dirtbag this corrupt defense lawyer is and then later has a minor character mention that he was “found dead” with as much enthusiasm as a someone reading off of a PowerPoint, it’s kind of disappointing.
She was also literally reading that off of a PowerPoint. Like many other plot points in Peppermint, it’s explained away with a couple of lines of exposition as detectives talk to each other.
The opening murder scene in the car establishes Riley as a stone-cold badass, but the scene is never mentioned, never revisited, and never really leads into anything. The movie honestly feels like it just never made it past the first draft of the script and managed to wander into production without being fully-formed.
I’d been hoping that Peppermint would end up being entertaining trash, but it rarely does more than merely graze that entertainment value. There’s an absurd lack of taste to how the entirety of the villain cast is composed of broad Latino gangster stereotypes, and the main villain especially feels like he’s been forcibly ejected from a David Ayer movie. Riley’s arsenal is composed of guns that are large enough to legally be called phallic, and she occasionally gets to use that sweet Jason Bourne “blink and I’m gone” trick.
Riley is also kind of a major dick, especially in the second half of the movie. She shoves a gun into the mouth of an alcoholic father to scare him into never drinking again, then threatens the liquor store clerk with never selling to that father again, then steals the dude’s car. She throws some money on the counter and says “consider it a rental,” but that’s really not how these things work. She eventually gets her revenge on Peg, too, breaking into her home and terrorizing the poor woman until she pees.
There are two other significantly more interesting kernels of a story that are relegated to the backseat in Peppermint. The first is Carmichael’s determination to take down the cartel despite knowing that there’s someone on the force working for the cartel and targeting cops that stir up trouble. Carmichael is also hinted at being an alcoholic, but that is never explored beyond a single scene. An alcoholic, determined cop whose only focus after years on the case is solving it is a great noir-tinged story that the movie doesn’t even begin to explore. However, this is a pretty great conversation between him and Beltran where Beltran warns Carmichael that the cartel has someone on the inside of the force that fatally punishes cops that go after them. By my guess, that puts the chance at one of the partners being the dirty cop at, I don’t know, about a billion percent?
The other wasted plotline is the eventual way Skid Row becomes a crime-free zone thanks to Riley’s actions. In the movie, she is celebrated as an avenging angel. She completely eradicates the crime in the area and even gets her own badass mural on a wall. But this community is just a throwaway extraneous element that seems to completely miss the opportunity to really explore how a vigilante can affect an impoverished, previously crime-ridden area. Peppermint is just too interested in its core generic plot.
I’m hard-pressed to think of another movie this year that is as profoundly dissatisfying as Peppermint. The plot points are almost all off the mark; the script is both predictable and nonsensical; the pacing makes the entire story devastatingly boring; and the things that should be even ironically fun are completely drowned out by the glaring issues suffocating the rest of the film. Not only is Peppermint an awful film, but it’s downright insulting that this has been passed off as something expected to be enjoyed.
And no, the title Peppermint has no meaning beyond Carly’s last meal at the beginning of the movie.
Peppermint (2018) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever Riley hallucinates her daughter
Take a Drink: every time social media talks about Riley
Do a Shot: when a wild Method Man appears in the last 20 minutes
Take a Drink: every time a character talks about what Riley has done instead of showing us a scene in which she does it.