Peppermint

 

 

            It begins with bucolic:  a Mom, Riley North (Jennifer Garner), is underemployed at a local bank, as is her husband at a local body shop, but they are happy together, and have a beautiful young daughter.  Then comes the crack in the idyllic facade.  The husband reluctantly agrees to do something he knows is shady with another employee.  He's swayed by the old argument of “you're going to have greasy hands all your life if you don't do something like this to push you into the next level.”  He's told all he has to do is drive somewhere.  Sounds easy enough.  But at his daughter's birthday party that night he has second thoughts, and calls the guy to tell him he's not going to do it, after all.  Leaves a message on his voicemail.  Little does he know that by then it's too late.  The other guy has already been captured and tortured by the local drug lord, who immediately issues a hit order.  The husband and his daughter are gunned down in a public park, while the Mom was going to get ice cream.

            Director Pierre Morel decides not to tell us much about what Riley North did with herself the next five years.  Something vague about training in Hong Kong.  But now she's emerged as the avenging angel, complete with an under-the-radar beat-up van parked in the middle of Skid Row.  The other residents call her their angel because she's tough enough to take care of the bad guys, and keep law and order among the city's street dwellers and anonymous nobodies.  But Riley North has bigger fish to fry.  She wants revenge on the people who took her family away from her.

            Here's where the viewer is caught in an ethical dilemma.  Do we really want to root for the vigilante, especially as she expands her scope to include the crooked cop, the paid-off prosecutor, and the corrupt judge?  And when she begins to take on the cartel, how far up the line does she go?  And how many minions does she have to slay to get to the top?  Yes, there have certainly been movies about vigilantes before.  But the one time Riley North hesitates is when she discovers that one of the cartel guys she's about to blow away also has a little daughter, who runs to him and cries out “Daddy!”.  And naturally, her hesitation costs her dearly:  she's severely wounded, and she's now gained enough local notoriety that simply going to the hospital is out of the question.

            This is not mentioned in the movie, but it's ironic that the current President of the Phillipines, Rodrigo Duterte, has garnered some international infamy for decreeing open season on all drug dealers.  Civilians are welcome to just shoot them on sight.  And there have reportedly been many deaths associated with this Presidential decree, though it's not abundantly clear that all of them are drug-related.  Would we really root for the kind of Wild West mentality here?

            And just to add another cultural wrinkle, “Peppermint” has already received much criticism for the Anglo innocent victims and the Hispanic drug dealers, as if to perpetuate cultural stereotypes.  Well, that's yet another uncomfortable aspect of rooting for the heroine (pun intended).

            Finally, there's the problem of what to do with this Riley North character at the end.  Should she die by cop-suicide?  Go out in a blaze of glory while taking down lots of bad guys with her?  Should she be captured and imprisoned?  Should she be allowed to ride off into the sunset unscathed?

            This is a film that seems to follow a tried-and-true formula, but in the end, raises more questions than it answers.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association