here are two kinds of roles actors take that stand out: paycheck roles and passion projects. This week, we have two movies in theaters that serve as a perfect illustration of that dichotomy.
On one hand, Jennifer Garner slums her way through the dispiritingly nihilistic revenge thriller “Peppermint.” On the other, Oscar-winning Matthew McConnaughey in “White Boy Rick” serves up another in a string of performances that have required him to completely change his natural good looks in order to play a sympathetic low-life. Both films are set among the poorest parts of Los Angeles and Detroit, respectively, but they’re worlds apart in terms of their quality and intention.
First up, “Peppermint” focuses on Garner as a seemingly sweet and mild-mannered working-class mother named Riley North who is forced into vengeance-taking action when a corrupt judge allows a trio of Latino gangbangers to go free after they mow down her husband and 5-year-old daughter before her eyes just before Christmas. Unbeknownst to her, Riley’s struggling mechanic husband had almost agreed to go along with a plan by a friend to rob a local drug lord, yet the cartel never learned he had a change of heart.
Riddled with bullets herself yet still alive, Riley gets sent packing to the county psych ward after she jumps out of the witness stand in an attempt to attack the shooters. She escapes en route and disappears for the next five years, traveling the world to study all sorts of combat and weapon skills before returning to kill every possible person involved in her family’s deaths — attorneys, the judge and the entire drug gang.
This could be fun and exciting in the right hands, and “Peppermint” is directed by Pierre Morel, whose 2009 action masterpiece “Taken” was a key element in reviving the action genre. But every single aspect of the film feels threadbare, as Garner is literally the only recognizable face or name in the cast and the entire movie takes place in warehouses and downtown alleys that are ridiculously free of homeless people and grime.
It’s a relentlessly racist film too, as not one Latino person out of many dozens in the cast has a shred of decency, humanity or interesting character traits. All are profanity-spewing, Spanglish-speaking, drug-running generic monsters — and I’m a Republican. Surely a White House gala screening awaits this ugly film, which will leave a sour taste in the mouth of any viewer with a conscience.
Meanwhile, “White Boy Rick” is a terrific true-crime tale that focuses on the story of Ricky Wershe Jr., an extremely poor uneducated kid growing up in 1980s Detroit who made up for his desperate circumstances with a combination of street smarts and a misguided but kind heart. Ricky is played by first-time actor Richie Merritt, and his performance is a wonder to behold, as he manages to find the vulnerability in a teenage boy who got tricked into heavy involvement in the city’s drug and gun-running underworld by law-enforcement officials as he became the youngest informant in US history.
The problem is it’s hard enough for adult informants with feet on both sides of the legal line, so expecting a teenager to navigate it all is a recipe for disaster. But Ricky never had a chance in life, as his father Rick (McConnaughey) has financed his family’s hardscrabble existence by buying AK-47s and other barely legal guns at gun shows and reselling them with all sorts of illegal modifications.
Add in his older sister Dawn (Bel Powley in a harrowing performance), who becomes a full-on junkie when she moves in with the wrong guy, and it’s easy to see why Ricky would be willing to overlook the dangers of his situation. Rather, he finds his acceptance by a black gang an exciting adventure. Crafty yet with a surface innocence that keeps winning people over, Ricky is forced to make adult decisions while trapped in a 15-year-old’s mind and body.
Helmed by another French director, Yann Demange, in his American feature-film debut, “Rick” has an impeccably desperate sense of time and place that is critical to making its wildly improbable true story starkly realistic from start to finish. Lest this sound like the film is relentlessly downbeat, kudos are due to the multi-layered screenplay by Andy Weiss and Logan and Noah Miller, which inspires Demange and his ace cast to stop the chaos on a dime numerous times in the film and serve up moments of touching humanity or hilariously dark humor.
While “Peppermint” is in the running for my worst film of the year, “White Boy Rick” has an equally strong chance to rank as one of my year’s 10 best.
“Peppermint” Grade: F
“White Boy Rick” Grade: A