Scalding Hot Takes: Peppermint (2018)
Welcome to the latest entry in Scalding Hot Takes. It’s the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast-fueled column where I write about the latest and greatest in big cinematic releases. The column has afforded me an opportunity to write about big, important new movie that are rocking the box-office and dominating cultural conversations, like Black Panther, The Last Jedi and The Avengers: Infinity War. But it’s also given me an excuse to hate-watch movies I know damn well have no chance of being good, let alone important or essential.
That was the case with Eli Roth’s deplorable, achingly dull remake of Death Wish. That’s equally true of Taken director Pierre Morel’s Peppermint, which is essentially Eli Roth’s Death Wish for soccer moms and Lifetime movie fanatics. Finally, a blood-splattered, hate-fueled vigilante power fantasy for people who shop at Yankee Candle!
If you’ve ever wondered what a racist, reactionary exploitation movie vehicle for the star of 13 Going on 30 might look and feel like, look no further! Congratulations, ladies! You’ve now achieved full equality now that a woman has proven she’s just as equipped as a man to star in a movie where a revenge-crazed mass murderer grimly executes a sizable army of crudely stereotyped caricatures in righteous vengeance after their family was assassinated. You may want to end this whole “feminism" nonsense now that your greatest and most important goal has been realized.
The pretty lady murdering a whole bunch of racist caricatures in Peppermint is Jennifer Garner, Elektra herself, as Riley North, a beautiful, fresh-faced wife and soccer mom type who doesn’t have to worry about anything more pressing than a bitchy rival mom deliberately sabotaging her daughter's birthday party out of spite before her husband makes a very bad decision that single-handedly destroys his family.
Riley’s husband agrees to drive a getaway car for a small-time criminal out to rob a big-time Mexican crime boss and even though he backs out at the last minute, these monsters from south of border nevertheless execute him, gangland-style, along with his adorable little daughter.
Riley just barely survives a drive-by where the killers’ Hispanic heritage is so cynically and exploitatively played up that they might as well be drinking tequila out of a sombrero while waving Mexican flags and singing the Mexican national anthem. When the emotionally shattered white lady, who even looks a little like Mollie Tibbetts before grief transforms her into Lady Punisher, tries to get justice for her unimaginable loss she discovers that the American justice system is hopelessly biased against attractive, photogenic white women with heartbreaking stories and gorgeous, dead families. She could theoretically take her case to the public by appealing to the press, but when have they're, if anything, even more biased against beautiful, telegenic white people with heartbreaking stories of loss and death at the hands of violent minorities.
Yes, white people just can’t get a fair shake in America, at least in Peppermint’s eyes (though, to be fair, it can be hard to see clearly with a hood over your head to conceal your identity) because vicious, sneering Mexican gang members with scary facial tattoos and long rap sheets have the entire legal system in their pocket. Peppermint plays up the racial element of the conflict to such an extent that when an evil white judge and an even more white evil defense attorney conspire to throw the trial to get the killers back on the street as quickly and efficiently as possible, they’re depicted not just as corrupt villains but also as race traitors who shamefully betray one of their own for the sake of the bloodthirsty Mexican cartel’s dirty, dirty, blood-soaked Mexican money.
Mad with grief and vengeance, Riley goes underground for five years, during which time she goes from a tragic soccer mom to Becky with the Good Guns. She’s 118 pounds of explosive, murderous power, a distaff Jason Bourne/Batman type who begins the movie as an off-brand Girl Scout den mother with attitude and returns an avenging angel of Los Angeles’ skid row, a fine-tooled killing machine who acts as judge, jury and (exceedingly enthusiastic) executioner to the gangbangers who killed her family and single-handedly keeps the poorest stretch of L.A’s meanest streets safe by acting as a gun-toting white savior gunning down all the bad brown people.
Killing all the bad brown people with an arsenal of weapons makes Riley a folk hero in a Los Angeles that has been hoping that someday a real rain will come and wipe all the scum off the streets. Riley turns out to be that cleansing rain, and the sneering, unpleasant gents with the brown skin and face tattoos are the scum of the streets that she wipes away with her many, many guns.
Hackneyed vigilante exploitation movies of the distant past often conveyed how their righteous mass murderer’s Fascist antics captured the imagination of the general public with man-on-the street interviews where representative members of the masses talk about how overjoyed they are that someone is finally killing all the bad brown people, or, alternately, how maybe there’s something wrong about ordinary citizens taking the law into their own hands, and giving themselves the God-like power to end lives as punishment for various transgressions.
In Death Wish, which Peppermint resembles in every conceivable way, loudmouth Chicago radio personality Mancow Mueller served as a sort of Greek chorus keeping audiences informed as to how the people of Chicago felt about its kill-crazy hero’s rampage of vigilante justice. Peppermint is so derivative of Death Wish that I wouldn’t be surprised if they also tried to cast Mancow Mueller in a similar role, only to have the studio tell them, “Don’t have a Mancow, man!”
I would apologize for the wordplay in the last paragraph but when you’re writing about hateful garbage like this you’ve got to find ways to make it fun, or least bearable. Like Death Wish, Peppermint lazily updates the hoary revenge movie cliche of regularly cutting to newscasts covering the public’s intense response to the film’s actions by regularly checking in on newscasts covering how Twitter and Facebook and social media are responding to righteous murders that have got the internet going nuts, largely with effusive praise for Riley and how she doesn’t let “political correctness” or “identity politics” keep her from single-handedly eliminating an entire bloodthirsty gang by herself with her fists of death and feet of fury but also magical guns that invariably hit their targets.
Hey, lazy filmmakers: you do not get credit for being timely and contemporary and rippling with social commentary and relevance for merely acknowledging that social media is totally a thing that exists in your world as well as ours, and also that people are constantly using it to express their opinions. That’s not clever, that’s not insightful. It’s literally just you limply acknowledging an increasingly obnoxious and ubiquitous component of modern life in God’s own United States.
Peppermint was directed by Pierre Morel, who scored a massive, depressingly influential international hit with Taken and followed it up with two movies in a similar vein, the dad thrillers To Paris with Love and The Gunman. Those films at least centered on professionals who’d spent their entire adult lives acquiring the unique skill set necessary to kill a whole bunch of trained killers who’ve done them wrong without getting killed themselves in the process.
Peppermint however, introduces Riley as a nice, normal white lady and then as the world’s most deadly, remorseless killer a half decade later and expects us to fill in the blanks and use our imaginations to piece together exactly how the character went from A to Z rather than A to B. You can’t just introduce a character as a fresh-faced everywoman devoted to her family and then five years laters re-introduce her as your version of John Wick, and expect the audience not to be rebel. You can’t just say that a character went away for a little while and came back a world-class, historic-level badass; you actually have to make them something more than just a cold, glowering, scowling cliche of one-dimensional vengeance.
Peppermint feels like a half hour or so has been slashed from it with the proverbial garden shears. Later in the third act, for example, at a point where it’s become apparent to everyone, including the corrupt police, that Riley has murdered literally dozens of poorly differentiated henchmen and is a one-woman crime spree, albeit one the movie endorses one hundred percent, she inexplicably ends up on local news using her cell phone camera to expose a dirty cop involved with her family’s murder.
Riley is a goddamn mass killer wanted by the police for her many, many crimes, mostly murder, yet the movie expects us to believe that at some point offscreen she struck up a deal with a local news station that decided give her free airtime and complete freedom to shoot footage exposing a corrupt cop in a way that corroborates her story.
That’s an astonishing amount of faith to give someone who is newsworthy primarily because of the dozens of people she’s recently killed. She literally probably still has blood on her hands. Then again, if you only kill the brown skinned bad guys, is is really murder? Or killing? Or wrong in any conceivable way? Isn’t it actually pretty great and something that we should all enjoy and endorse without reservation?
To put things in Jaws: The Revenge terms, Riley's appearance on local news is a quintessential "Voodoo Shark", that is to say a piece of entertainment where the explanation for a plot hole or inconsistency is so shabby and poorly conceived that it makes things more preposterous and ridiculous, not less so. I'm still not sure exactly why the filmmakers thought a known criminal and spree killer would be given a high-profile showcase to expose corruption within the police force by a seemingly sane, responsible news organization so perhaps it's best that they skipped the explanation entirely and simply cut to Riley taking her case directly to her beloved public.
Movies about revenge don’t need to be good to be powerful or successful. God knows the Death Wish movies are trash, in both the original and Bruce Willis incarnations. Movies about righteous vengeance appeal to an ugly, scared and often racist place in our minds, to our reactionary lust for law & order and justice at any cost. They play dirty and appeal to our blood lust and fear of outsiders and the unknown.
Revenge movies have all kinds of slick ways of manipulating our emotions. They’re exploitation movies in the truest sense yet watching Peppermint I felt nothing but disgust, not with the crudely drawn minority heavies whose blood we’re supposed to crave but rather with the filmmakers, their ugly agenda and their even uglier brand of Alt-Right pop mythologizing.
This is an action movie for people who want to cosplay as Bernard Goetz. It taps into the same wave of racism, scapegoating and fear mongering that catapulted Trump to the highest office in the land in flagrant defiance of God’s will and common sense and just as crudely and ineptly.
It’s certainly not the first revenge movie to appeal shamelessly to a presumably white audience’s fear and hatred of a violent, amoral, murderous and blood-crazed criminal underclass Trump has all too effectively depicted as Mexico’s primary import to our nation but it feels particularly ugly and cynical and wrong in this particular cultural and political context.
I can’t imagine that Garner agrees with the movie’s politics and there’s literally nothing to her character but blind rage so I’m perplexed as to what could have attracted her to the film, beyond a lead role in a theatrically released movie and the resulting fat paycheck.
The world does not need Peppermint, just as it did not need last year’s Death Wish or the Death Wish series that begin in the 1970s yet it nevertheless has the gall to end by teasing further cinematic adventures for our kill-crazy heroine. It’s possible there will be more Peppermint motion pictures but I sincerely hope that this is the end.
Peppermint is a true reflection of the age and violently divisive, hate-filled political climate that birthed it, which does not speak well of either an unusually ugly little movie or the uncertain and fearful times we’re living in.
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