Vigilante revenge thrillers in the style of 1974’s Death Wish feel positively old-fashioned. The crime that plagued cities decades ago has fallen in communities across the country, often to record lows. Many conservative media outlets, however, would tell you crime everywhere is as bad as ever, especially because of immigrants, and director Pierre Morel’s Peppermint feels grown out of such paranoia. Feeding into the fantasies of people like Mike Huckabee, it makes its bad guys a sprawling gang of Latino, MS-13 types that have bought off the cops and the judges in Los Angeles and don’t hesitate to kill anyone for even just thinking about ripping them off.
One such victim is Chris (Jeff Hephner), a mechanic who considered—before then rejecting—being the getaway driver in a plan to rob associates of Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), a local kingpin also known as La Guillotina. Chris and his young daughter, Carly (Cailey Fleming), are shot to death outside a Christmas carnival at the end of a perfect-evening birthday celebration. (The film, inexplicably, seems named after the flavor of ice cream—never to be mentioned again—that Carly eats as she’s gunned down.) Riley (Jennifer Garner), a bank teller, is also shot but survives, and while she’s able to finger the low-level gunmen who killed her husband and daughter, the paid-off judges and prosecutors muck up the case, and the defendants go free. Already the film is only to happy to bask in that familiar lie that the American justice system has been corrupted to protect criminals and punish victims.
Morel used to be better than this. He made his name in Hollywood with Taken, which, along with its follow-up, From Paris with Love, satirized the War on Terror, depicting Americans abroad wantonly killing laughably ubiquitous terrorists and destroying insane amounts of property—as though all of Europe could be leveled, every immigrant murdered, if it meant protecting one American girl. But Peppermint, Morel’s first feature film set in the United States, is brainless propaganda for the MAGA market. If much of Morel’s work to this point scanned as tongue-in-cheek, this one feels like a raspberry.
All that’s left, then, is his particular set of skills as a consummate director of action. Riley disappears after the system fails her, reemerging as a killing machine for the anniversary of her family’s deaths after five years of ostensibly intense paramilitary and cage-fighting training. She kills the gunmen and hangs them by their feet from a Ferris wheel, terminates the attorneys, blows up the judge, and shoots almost every member of Garcia’s gang as she advances through them—like in a first-person shooter—all the way up to the big boss. (She also pops off on detours: to scare straight a random alcoholic dad or to hurt and humiliate an enemy from her old life, when her biggest problems included helping to sell Girl Scout-like cookies.)
Morel directs the scenes of action mayhem with aplomb, but he also glamorizes them, such as with slow-motion sequences that allow us to better appreciate the righteous, precision-targeted violence that Riley unleashes on Garcia’s gang, one man at a time. Morel encourages the audience to applaud and laugh delightedly, rendering Riley a folk hero, just as within the film she becomes muralized on Skid Row, which she keeps safe, and beloved on social media. Early on, Riley tells her daughter that hitting bad people makes one as bad as them, but by the end, the film is excusing, forgiving, and celebrating all of her spectacular, impossibly uncomplicated violence.