Los Angeles mom Riley North (Jennifer Garner) has everything she could possibly want—namely, a hot, caring husband and a cute, clever daughter—until all of it is taken away in one violent act perpetrated by the local drug cartel during the Christmas carnival. When the justice system fails her, Riley pulls a Bruce Wayne, disappearing for five years to become a trained killer and returning to her hometown to seek vengeance for the violent act that claimed the lives of her family.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen it countless times before. Not only that, we’ve seen similar, better–executed stories from Peppermint’s own director and star—Pierre Morel with Taken and Jennifer Garner in TV spy drama Alias, which began with Garner’s character losing her fiancé to an assassination in the show’s pilot and becoming a double agent in order to bring those responsible to justice. Both Taken and Alias are vastly superior to Peppermint.
Visually, Peppermint is competent. The R-rated action is dynamic, bolstered by a wonderful physical and emotional performance from Garner, who we’ve established has done this many times before. Particular highlights include a confetti-filled piñata store shootout and a sequence that sees Riley getting cover by ghost riding. (Because Riley has zero friends or allies—mercenary or otherwise. It makes for a sad movie—like, this movie made me sad.) The movie overuses a choppy editing technique that’s straight out of Memento or Veronica Mars Season 1, as well as unnecessary visual reminders that, yes, Riley once had a young daughter who was slain right in front of her eyes.
While Peppermint might come out slightly ahead of other revenge thrillers when it comes to gender politics, it’s blatantly racist. You don’t go into a revenge thriller for its nuanced depiction of violent crime, but Peppermint is particularly simplistic in its depiction of violence—specifically, who does it and why. There is white Girl Scout mom Riley, who kills in pursuit of justice that corrupt institutions like the court and police were unable to give her and her family. And then there are all of the Latino gang characters in the film, who seemingly perpetrate crime of all varieties because they are just hateful, greedy, violent people. There is no context for their villainy, which doesn’t differentiate between adults and children, between guilty and innocent. The only explanation this film seems to need is that they are Latino. Have I mentioned this film features a shootout at a piñata store?
The socioeconomic simplicity expands to Riley’s Skid Row home. Though the viewer is asked to believe that Riley is a hero—even an “angel,” as one homeless resident calls her—to the tent community, we never see her have even one conversation with any of her neighbors until one of them is literally held at gunpoint in the final act of the film. Peppermint is uninterested in seriously engaging with the themes of community and family that it seems so interested in calling upon as justification for its revenge plot that, when Riley loses her husband and daughter, there are literally zero other loved ones or even casual acquaintances who show up at the hospital to support what is sure to be the worst period of her life. This kind of contextual vagueness makes Riley seem a like an outsider even before her five years of exile. Was Riley already a secret assassin on the run from the law even before her family is killed? I mean… maybe.
This movie wants to be Batman Begins, but, instead, it is a bad episode of 24: racist, choppy, and violent for violent’s sake. Jennifer Garner, and her performance, deserve better. Peppermint makes for a respectable flipping-through-the-channels movie, but save your hard-earned money for a different movie ticket.