Peppermint: Urban gentrifier Jennifer Garner stars as a one-person neighborhood watch committee.
“I’d prefer it if you didn’t show any movies with guns in them,” were some of the words of encouragement expressed by former MoPA director and my long ago boss, Arthur Ollman. (“Not even Bambi?” came this inquisitive curator’s reply.) Peppermint houses more firepower (and even less background checking) than a Del Mar gun show. Arthur wouldn’t last much past the opening logos.
As a light comedienne, Jennifer Garner had me at 13 Going on 30 and the fatally undervalued Butter, so much so that I was willing to overlook her more obvious forays into commercial waste (Electra, The Kingdom). She clearly received custody of the talent in her recent divorce from Ben Affleck, but eventually, taste must enter into the conversation, and her presence in this company is downright unclean. There must not have been enough zeros on the alimony check; why else would she agree to lend her name to what is essentially gun porn?
After witnessing her husband Chris (Jeff Hephner) and daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming) succumb to a spray of Mexican gangsters’ bullets, Riley North (Garner) not only takes down the trio of thugs directly responsible for the slaughter, she personally exterminates every scumbag on L.A.’s skid row — and takes down a few audience members in the process. The title refers to the flavor of blood-stained ice cream cone that complements Carly’s last meal, although the reference in the trailer to “peppermint in her butt” didn’t make the final cut.
Before one drop of blood is shed, a precautionary measure is issued, as Riley warns her young daughter against the evils of threatening to punch someone’s lights in a Girl Scout cookie turf war at the supermarket entrance. It’s a setup for a gag that pays off in pettiness and shows our vigilante mom to be anything but admirable.
Riley’s grease monkey husband is so strapped for cash that he agrees to drive the getaway car in a drug deal destined to go wrong. To cover himself, screenwriter Chad St. John (London Has Fallen) gives Chris a bad case of second thoughts that causes him to leave his partner a voicemail that doubles as a guilt-absolver. In Riley’s eyes, it’s enough to justify the carnage that follows. The film’s signature image of three dangling corpses artistically positioned on a Ferris wheel is a terrific payoff. But other than the stock revenge angle, what about the setup? The real challenge came in curbing the ricocheting bullets long enough to show how Riley North pulled off the amazing hoist.
Her refusal to accept an envelope brimming with hush money results in a mob lawyer putting her sanity on trial. Laughter from the trio of goons responsible for destroying her family muffles the sound of the bailiff’s taser gun. Making her escape, Riley spends the next five years studying at John Rambo’s Technical Institute, where she receives dual master’s degrees in Inarticulate Assassination and Wound Seaming. What follows is racist wish-fulfillment of the lowest order as the pretty white lady with the one-woman arsenal exterminates Mexican after Mexican. Instead of putting “that bitch in a box” as baddie Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba) suggests, why not simply direct Riley to build a wall around her heavily-accented nemesis?
Suddenly, skid row is safer than Bel-Air, but not safe enough to shield audiences from cheap pathos in the form of two homeless kids, looking on from afar as their modern-day Lady Robin Hood puts stuntmen through their paces. If the filmmakers seriously wanted to comment on violence… well, if they wanted to do that, they would never have agreed to sign on to this trash, but supposing they did, a stray bullet from Riley’s gun would have found its way into one of the moppets, thus increasing the chances of Riley’s culpability.
Most disheartening of all is the presence of director Pierre Morel, whose first feature, District B13, bounced moviegoers across the auditorium with its nimble-footed incorporation of parkour into a crime drama. Not only did Morel’s follow-up feature, the wildly entertaining thrill ride Taken, guarantee Liam Neeson a solid January opening for years to come, its success allowed the director to pretty much write his own ticket. Two underperforming action duds (From Paris With Love, The Gunman) later finds Morel following the spoor of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish cycle. You know what they say: “Guns don’t kill, people do, except actors who rake in millions by glamorizing gunplay.” Take a ten-day waiting period and then refuse to bite into this poisonous Peppermint schtick.