What Latino Film Critics Are Saying About ‘Peppermint’

Lead Photo: Jennifer Garner stars in 'Peppermint'. Still courtesy of STXfilms Motion Picture Artwork ©
Jennifer Garner stars in 'Peppermint'. Still courtesy of STXfilms Motion Picture Artwork ©
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A female Death Wish. That seems to be the selling point and inspiration for Jennifer Garner’s new film Peppermint. After losing her husband and daughter at the hands of three gang members, Riley North (Garner) sets out to exact revenge on her own. Five years after the tragedy that forever changed her, she returns to Los Angeles as a cut-throat assassin intent on taking out everyone and everything that denied her young girl the justice she deserves. That means targeting not just the corrupt judge and lawyers that helped the three gang members go free but the drug cartel they belong to. From Taken director Pierre Morel, Peppermint follows Riley’s revenge spree all around LA, from piñata stores to Skid Row, leaving few standing bodies in her wake.

With an abysmal Rotten Tomatoes score, it’s clear critics have not taken kindly to it. Lauding Garner’s acting chops and “special set of skills,” reviewers mostly found the action flick lackluster, with some finding fault with its seemingly timely politics. Todd Gilchirst of The Wrap asks whether it’s “a good idea in 2018 for almost every one of the villains in the film to be written as and portrayed by Latino,” concluding “Probably not, but it’s easy.”

Hoping to see those kinds of asides be more central in reviews of Morel’s film, we reached out to a handful of Latino critics to get their thoughts on this Jennifer Garner star vehicle. Read their takes below.

Peppermint opened in theaters on September 7, 2018.

"The filmmakers unwittingly tap into the current administration’s anti-Latino hysteria, giving 'Peppermint' a relevance it doesn’t deserve."

You can trace a direct line from Michael Winner’s insidious 1974 vigilante film Death Wish to Peppermint, Philip Morel’s by-the-numbers, and problematic, revenge film. Both have as their protagonist a white person who seeks to avenge a brutal attack against their loved ones by, mostly, people of color after the legal system lets them down. Both tap into their respective era’s political moment: one deliberately, the other by sheer serendipity. Death Wish gave voice to the anxieties of denizens of a large metropolis –New York, but really, Anywhere, U.S.A. – as it dealt with rampant crime. And while there is no doubt that Peppermint’s villain du jour, the Mara Salvatruchas, are brutal and violent, the filmmakers unwittingly (and I am here giving them the benefit of the doubt) tap into the current administration’s anti-Latino hysteria, giving Peppermint a relevance it doesn’t deserve.

Mother Riley (Jennifer Garner), father Chris (Jeff Hephner) and cute and foul-mouthed daughter Carley (Cayley Fleming) are your prototypical white working class family overburdened by debt. Riley works at a local bank, Chris is the owner of an auto shop. Father and daughter are gunned down by drug lord Diego García’s (Juan Pablo Raba) henchmen while they are out celebrating Carly’s birthday. Riley not only manages to survive a bullet to the head but is able to identify the shooters. The case is thrown out of court and Riley is ordered by the corrupt judge to be sent to a mental facility. She escapes, of course, and disappears. She returns on the fifth anniversary of the shooting, turned into a “shoot ‘em in the head” John Wick-like assassin, leaving a trail of Latino blood and brains in her wake (curiously, the only two white people she kills in her rampage –the judge that threw out the case and García’s lawyer– are executed using far more elegant and sophisticated methods).

Morel and writer Chad St.John eschew any backstory; other than an expository meeting between the Justice Department and the local police force, they barely hint at how this mom could have turned into this ruthless killing machine. They cut to the chase, giving audiences what they want (the audience at a recent word-of-mouth screening were screaming their approval at every thudding, bass-heavy shot fired by Riley). Neither do they bother to give Garcia any dimension that would make him a true well-rounded antagonist; he, and his army of tattooed gangbangers come out of casting central, meat to be ground down by a hail of bullets.

And when they gratuitously introduce Garcia’s daughter and wife, they are treated no more than a plot contrivance designed to set up an unnecessary third act. Even the one redeemable Latino character, a police detective played by John Ortiz, is used as such. One fellow critic saw this as a clever use of misdirection, I as clumsy scriptwriting.

Visually, Morel borrows every stylistic trick from Tony Scott’s stylebook without Scott’s elan. Peppermint at times feels like a low-budget relative to Scott’s very own bad hombre film, the equally reprehensible Man on Fire (2004).

Alejandro A. Riera

"The film’s setup plays like Trumpian rhetoric made flesh. It’d be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous."

The key moment that anchors Pierre Morel’s Peppermint, the one that sets its revenge plot in motion, is a pitch perfect study in emotional manipulation. After a loving family outing at a nighttime fair, Riley North (Jennifer Garner, in full Alias mode), watches as her husband Chris (Jeff Hephner) and daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming) become victims of a coordinated drive-by shooting. The soundtrack fades away, the action slows down. Riley’s screams remain mere contorted facial expressions. Shrouded in darkness and protected by the black car they’re in, the men responsible for these murders are shadowy figures reduced to their face tattoos and their oversized guns. The moment is jarring and demands our tears. Riley, we’ve seen, is a devoted working mother trying to make ends meet. She’s the victim of the senseless violence that gang members and drug cartels have brought into what we’re led to believe is her otherwise safe suburban life.

Those murders are what drive Riley to identify her assailants and testify against them only to be met with corruption that runs from the cops to the DA and all the way to the judge, all of whom conspire to let these three smug thugs walk away. The film’s setup, like the murder scene, plays like Trumpian rhetoric made flesh: here lies a corrupt justice system that would rather let killing gangsters run free than protect your kids. It’d be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.

The revenge fantasy that follows plays like a drab and muddy take on Grand Theft Auto. Shaky-cam moves and establishing shots of LA ripped from a cop procedural drama frame a nonstop killing spree of brown bodies. It’s a first-person shooter video game mapped onto a thin white-woman-wronged plot. Every new person Riley encounters is merely a corpse in waiting, another faceless baddie she needs to take down. Rarely are they afforded the sympathy she grants a white alcoholic father she decides to set straight while fleeing yet another crime scene on the bus.

The involvement of actors like Richard Cabral (Emmy-nominated for American Crime) calls into question precisely what kinds of roles are still being offered to Latino actors today. As I kept watching more and more heavily-tattooed (aka “scary”) Latino characters pop up only to be killed, I wondered what those auditions looked like, what kinds of decisions these actors had to make, what it might feel to know that “Piñana Guard #2,” “Shop goon” and “Dead Thug” (all actual character names listed on the film’s IMDB) are the roles you’re able to book, able to read for, able to celebrate getting.

Not that anyone at my screening was remotely concerned with any of that. They mostly rejoiced when Riley found new ways of shooting guys in the face.

Manuel Betancourt

"'Peppermint' makes no distinction between gangsters, cartels, immigrants, or US Latinos, and neither will those who come to watch with xenophobic eyes."

Welcome to the Trumpian fantasy known as Peppermint, where a working class white woman loses her loving husband and daughter at the hands of tatted up Latino thugs with machine guns. In this outrageously implausible, pro-gun realm, a good girl with a gun is most certainly the answer to violent people of color hurting “real Americans.”

Based on the full cast list of this clumsily written and ideologically poisonous wreck directed by Pierre Morel and starring Jennifer Garner, Peppermint seems to have one of the highest concentrations of Latino actors of any studio movie this year. That could be interpreted as progress; however, nearly all of them are portraying stereotypical criminals (from cholos to cartel bosses) and are brutally murdered by Garner’s character Riley North. At my screening, their executions were cheered on by bloodthirsty spectators groomed to see these men as disposable villains.

Only one Latino is spared, Detective Moises Beltran (Nuyorican veteran John Ortiz), as if to let us know that perhaps some of us are not that bad, but only if we are in law enforcement or a similarly patriotic profession. Two homeless kids seen throughout the story, Maria (Kyla-Drew Simmons) and Jose (Gustavo Quiroz), represent youth of color, but their only purpose is to exalt their white savior’s kind heart.

It would be unfair to judge any working Latino thespian for accepting one-noted, disparaging, and stereotypical roles like the ones in this formulaic actioner, because there are so few offers for them that aren’t similar to these. This garbage is what’s on the table, and people need to pay their bills and get out there in hopes that more thoughtful and prominent parts will come. Yet, the industry continues to regress to tropes that embolden a racist narrative and lump all Latinos together in a cesspool of negative perceptions.

Peppermint makes no distinction between gangsters, cartels, immigrants, or US Latinos, and neither will those who come to watch with xenophobic eyes. On the contrary, those already corroded by hatred will be reassured about how they see us thanks to this dangerously tactless vigilante tale.

Overused hazy fast-forwarded shots, embarrassingly trite dialogue, and plot holes galore add to the long list of reasons that make this release an all-around cheap mess. Garner also destroys a warehouse with handcrafted piñatas, candy, and party decorations, and that’s truly an unforgettable and wasteful shame.

Carlos Aguilar

"Nearly everything in 'Peppermint' comes back to how immigrants – specifically Latino immigrants – are destroying the country."

When Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado came out earlier this year, I feared it would spark a wave of anti-Latino films aimed at Middle America, reminding them that “bad hombres” lurk around every corner, ready to destroy good, white families. A little over two months since that film came out we have Peppermint, a movie picking up where Sicario 2 left off, taking the battle to the nice, white suburban world of girl scout cookies and school carnivals.

The Norths are an average family, as straight-arrow as their name implies. Four days before Christmas, Riley North (Jennifer Garner) watches her husband and daughter die in a vicious drive-by at the behest of Los Angeles drug kingpin Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). It doesn’t matter that her husband thought about ripping off Garcia to give his family a new life. No, what matters is a group of tatted-up, gun-toting cholos killed her family and they must pay!

Nearly everything in Peppermint comes back to how immigrants – specifically Latino immigrants – are destroying the country. Riley uncovers a growing conspiracy where white men, from judges to lawyers to cops are all on the take with the drug-runners, a reminder that the government and its laws – its “sanctuary cities” – allow these men to thrive. These Mexicans are so bad, a corrupt cop can’t even hide his disgust when Diego threatens to kill a child. Yes, white men have a line in the sand and these savages are crossing it! A subplot involving social media and 24/7 news coverage championing Riley only seeks to remind audiences of the presumed silent majority that is just as racist and gun-happy as Riley is.

Director Pierre Morel and screenwriter Chad St. John see the world in black and white, or at least brown and white. Latino men rock face tats and worship at the altar of candle-lit grim reapers like they’re cult devotees (and their base of operations is a piñata factory), while the few Latinas are just sniveling victims waiting for a backhand or sitting in their underwear working the narco circuit. Riley, and all her #whitefeminism, is the only one who can save Los Angeles and by extension, the world. Her crying womb and her mothering nature is what America needs to stop immigrants from killing our children. Sure, Riley could stop bad white guys – like the drunken man she meets on a bus who mistreats his kid – but Latinos are the real problem!

The camera employs rapid-fire editing and effects ripped straight from an episode of Sons of Anarchy. The characters, with the exception of Riley, are there to either help or hinder her. But really it’s just laughable to watch a movie where LAPD allow a white woman to point a loaded gun at a Latino and she’s not immediately struck down – not the best timing, considering the recent death of Latina Vanessa Marquez in Southern California. All of this just continues to play on the fear and racist rhetoric that’s fueled the entirety of 2018.

Kristen Lopez

"The antagonists are two-dimensional Latino gangsters rendered into literal faceless vessels."

In the closing act of the ultra-violent revenge flick Peppermint, a group of cars drive into Los Angeles’s Skid Rowfor a final showdown with the film’s vigilante hero Riley North (Jennifer Garner). Riley is a pissed-off mother who has spent the last hour and a half massacring everyone – mostly tattooed Latino gang members – implicated in the cold-blooded murder of her husband and daughter.

The scene becomes the perfect metaphor for the way French director Pierre Morel (Taken), screenwriter Chad St. John (London Has Fallen) and Peppermint producers feel about the Latinos they’ve included in their film. When the car doors open, the antagonists step out, their faces obscured by masks – they are two-dimensional Latino gangsters rendered into literal faceless vessels through which to propagate a tired stereotype Hollywood has been churning out for decades. It’s as though the film is saying, “It doesn’t matter who is behind the mask, just as long as audiences know they’re bad hombres.” Those Latino characters whose faces we do see, including LAPD Detective Moises Beltran (John Ortiz), are written with the same shallow attributes.

As the United States witnesses its President and his hardcore base vilify Latino immigrants as rapists and murderers who are infesting America, Peppermint is the wrong film at the wrong time. It proves that some out-of-touch corners in Hollywood are still blind to the complex and dangerous issues all immigrants are facing today.

Everyone involved with this project should be embarrassed. And they need to be called out on it. As a film critic, it would be easy enough to write about the other elements of Peppermint that make it a subpar movie – from the cliché and often illogical script, to the lazy direction and some of the laughable acting. But that kind of criticism pales in comparison to the negative – and frankly, dangerous – perceptions the movie’s very premise propagates. The people behind Peppermint need to hear the more uncomfortable discussions their movie provokes. They need to listen, take note and realize that in 2018 they should be better than this.

Kiko Martinez