Champion of Justice or Vigilante

Jennifer Garner in "Peppermint"


I was a huge fan of Alias, a television series that ran in the early 2000s starring Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow, an international spy recruited out of college who is highly skilled in spy craft and self-defense. The series was well crafted with complex characters, moral dilemmas and twisting plots, receiving numerous awards and nominations. And, personally, I enjoyed seeing a strong female character as the lead in the action genre.

So I was thrilled when I heard that Garner, now 46 and a mother of three, was returning to what looked like a similar role in Peppermint, an action film centered on Riley North, a mother who transforms herself into a highly skilled fighter as she seeks justice against a cartel that killed her husband and daughter.

But Peppermint is no Alias—and Riley is no Sydney Bristow.

It turns out Peppermint is pretty much your standard run of the mill vigilante film in lines with the 1974 Death Wish (which just got remade this year) to more recent flicks like Taken and John Wick.

While Riley says she is seeking justice for the deaths of her husband and daughter, she is actually seeking vengeance as she systematically, very violently and without a second thought kills everyone involved in her family’s deaths—from the gang members who pulled the triggers to the judge and district attorney who collaborated with the cartel’s leader.

In Saint Paul at the Movies, Robert Jewett says vigilantism “is one of the most pervasive tales in American culture, giving shape to the yearning for quick and decisive public vengeance outside legally limited public means.”

Often, says Jewett, in stories like these there will be a character that is portrayed as an instrument of providence taking up the task of dealing out God’s wrath. Peppermint is no exception, with the film’s strongest symbol being a graffiti image of Riley with angel-like wings painted on the walls of a slum whose inhabitants she protects.

Don’t get me wrong. I resonate with stories that give us a sense of satisfaction in watching a hero come alongside the powerless, suffering and wronged and set things right.

But Peppermint isn’t that. As Jewett would put it, this film is personal vengeance disguised as vigilantism.

The trouble with taking the law into your own hands, says Jewett, is that it seldom plays out in reality the way it does in the movies. In fact, Jewett believes these kinds of stories can actually “serve to popularize the very antisocial behavior that causes much of the problem in the first place.”

Jennifer Garner deserved a better role in which to return to the action genre—and, frankly, we deserved a better story.

“The society influenced by these stories is facing a virtual epidemic of cool and relentless killers,” says Jewett, “…tracking down persons they imagine are offenders and giving them vigilante justice, swift and direct.”

While it wasn’t the main point of the series, I appreciated the ways Alias explored the ramifications of violence and the dilemmas we can face while seeking or waiting for justice. But Peppermint barely even touches on these aspects, much less explores them. Garner deserved a better role in which to return to the action genre—and, frankly, we deserved a better story.

Peppermint is rated R, containing extremely graphic violence and profanity throughout the film.

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