Iconic 1980 and 1990’s action movies like Die Hard, Air Force One, and Commando pioneered many of the tropes of modern action films. The jump cuts, the now-predictable dialogue, the audio sweetened gunshots echoing down indoor spaces somehow without deafening the shooters. Twenty years later, an 80’s-influenced J.J. Abrams launched the career of Jennifer Garner with television’s Alias, a show about Garner as an undercover agent working for what she believes to be the CIA. After more than a decade of taking on far more dramatic, far less stunt-heavy roles in films like Juno and Dallas Buyers Club, Garner’s return to the world of gun-slinging vigilantes could have been the perfect merger of her superior acting chops and her tuck-and-roll muscle-bound moves. And why not? Peppermint‘s 1980’s predecessors scored huge box office numbers. Die Hard alone launching a 140 million dollar franchise. Unfortunately Peppermint — despite its female lead, a “new twist” on the old male-driven action formula being trotted out by several studios in 2018 (see Ocean’s 8, and later this year, Widows) — feels out of place in the cultural moment. The tropes of the 80’s films it emulates are there, but they don’t match pace with 2018’s cultural shift. Peppermint emulates films that are at their core xenophobic stories about foreigners that are not welcome in the American world of their protagonists. In Die Hard, it was the Germans being gunned down by a shoeless John McClane. In Air Force One, Russian terrorists must be thwarted to save the first family. Despite the 20 years between them, 1985’s Commando and 2018’s Peppermint both share a common foreign enemy — the Latin drug cartel.
In Peppermint, Jennifer Garner’s caucasian family lives on the wrong side of the tracks — “North of the Boulevard,” to be specific (Pell James gives a lot of expository geographical information, portraying in near comic satire, a wealthy neighbor of Garner’s). It’s difficult to feel bad for a family with two working parents who although not dripping in wealth, still manage to hold down a modest, well-decorated home and take their child to pizza and a carnival on a whim. They’re not that down on their luck, and there are no immediate debts that must be repaid, which is why it seems strange when Garner’s husband (played by Jeff Hephner) makes a deal with his coworker to steal from drug dealers to secure some cash. The deal never goes through, but the cartel gets a whiff of the plot and takes out Garner’s husband and child in a brutal drive-by shooting right before her eyes. She later identifies the gunmen out of a line-up (a tip to wannabe criminals — facial tattoos are an easy way to be super identifiable), but due to a corrupt justice system, they are never charged. The men laugh at Garner’s grief from behind the defense table. Garner’s latent bad-ass is triggered. She begins training for her revenge.
The sad irony of the film’s very premise is that the justice system is corrupt — just not against white ladies pressing charges. Blacks and Hispanics have long been overrepresented as a population in the U.S. prison system. Hispanics represent 16% of the adult population, but they accounted for 23% of inmates in United States prisons as of 2018.
So why make a film that perpetuates a false narrative about fictional injustice, when there is real injustice that could use the magnified visibility that an A-list actress and a million dollar budget bring? Why do film studios believe that their audiences don’t care about stories of injustice for minority communities?
While looking at Peppermint, it is worthwhile to consider a show that gets a portrayal of a Latin American drug cartel right. Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad follows a white protagonist into the meth-dealing underworld of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Hispanic drug dealers, just like in Peppermint, are the bad guys. But unlike in Peppermint, they aren’t just dialogue-less goons to be shot up. They have fleshed out backstories, relationships, even triumphs. Breaking Bad‘s Walter White needs things from his Mexican counterparts, whereas Peppermint‘s Riley North uses them as target practice.
In Mindy Kaling’s 2011 book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, she managed to predict three major motion pictures that would come to fruition by 2018. She craves all-female reboots of classic films Ghostbusters and Ocean’s Eleven, the latter of which she would go on to star in. The third film idea she posits as a work-out fantasy — she imagines her whole family was brutally murdered and she is training to avenge their deaths. This is the literal plot of the first 30 minutes of Peppermint. Perhaps if the quirky Kaling had been involved in the writing of this film, it could have come off as a self-aware satire of the male-driven action movie industry. But without irony, and instead of being a pulse-racing, adrenaline junky dream carried by a powerful leading actress, Peppermint instead watches like a culturally tone-deaf pastiche, itself not in on the joke.
Not only is Peppermint at best ignorantly perpetuating a false narrative about non-white communities, and at worst, actively racist, it’s also unoriginal. The remake of 1974’s Death Wish was quietly released earlier in 2018 starring Bruce Willis with a nearly identical plot — family is murdered, protagonist avenges their deaths vigilante-style. The only difference is the gender of the lead. There’s an identifiable trend of strong female leads in action films — perhaps kicked off by 2016’s Wonder Woman, an enormous success that marked the first female-led and female-directed comic book superhero movie in more than a decade, grossing 828.1 million, the highest-grossing superhero origin film ever. But it is not enough to simply place a female behind an assault rifle. As writers like Gillian Flynn (Sharp Objects, Gone Girl) understand, women avenge differently than men. There’s an old screenwriting joke about how to write better dialogue for women — just write a scene for men, then change the names. But this is not enough. The proof is in the numbers that well-written characters that aren’t straight white men consistently perform well. Diversity for diversity’s sake isn’t effective, nor, as Peppermint shows, is recycling a decades-old model for action films that perpetuate an inaccurate and inhumane worldview.
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