Peppermint opens with a crane shot in a parking lot with a lone car in it. It’s bouncing, and we all know what that means…that somebody’s probably getting murked in there because this is a vigilante action film and that occasionally means playful visual puns. For a single clever second, as the camera closes in, we see a silhouette that looks a lot like two people copulating. But soon enough, a head gets slammed against the window and we cut inside to see Riley North (Jennifer Garner) struggling with some gangbanger before capping him in the head.
This is fine. It’s a solid opening statement, actually. We tend to watch vigilante movies to see a brutally wronged person rise up and take vengeance on the people that wronged them, and in a good, basic vigilante movie—one that doesn’t care to question that nature of vigilantism—the patterns of buildup and release at work are similar to sex, right down to the small gushes and geysers of blood that punctuate the action. Pierre Morel’s Taken is the platonic ideal of this. It’s patronizing as hell—any movie about a father wrecking house to get back his daughter from sex traffickers who kidnapped her because she didn’t listen to him is bound to be at least a little patronizing—but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying to see Liam Neeson steamroll over these bastards. Not just because he’s credible, but because his antagonists are shockingly believable, as uncomplicated and repugnant as they are.
As a film critic, there still things I feel I can be better at. One of them is following The Ebert Rule, which I hold dear in theory: “Judge the movie for what it’s trying to be, not for what you want it to be.” Peppermint isn’t trying to make any profound statements on vigilantism or do anything special; its thesis is “Hey, remember how cool it was to see Jennifer Garner beat the shit out of people? Let’s see some more of that!” It’s a strong thesis. Still, when Garner’s on-screen shredding dudes like Enron documents and all I can think about is what this might look like if Coralie Fargeat or Michelle MacLaren or even Robert Rodriguez was directing, something has gone terribly wrong.
Because let’s be clear, the problem with this movie is definitely not Garner. She’s heroic, not just in the sense of the role she occupies, but in just how appealing she is in it even as everything seems to be going wrong around her. There’s a reason people stayed loyal to Alias as it got decreasingly coherent and sane, and there’s a reason why an Elektra spinoff was tried even when most people felt like Daredevil didn’t work. Garner can go, and even after ten years cooling her heels and doing strong, consistent work in melodramas and family films, she’s still got the stuff. It’s a hoot to watch her mow people down. It’s downright wonderful to hear her growl her plan to a bad guy when he thinks he’s got her cornered: “I’m gonna blow a hole in your fucking face, and then I’ll improvise.” Maybe Morel counted on all that to carry the film. It sure plays like he did, and he was deeply mistaken.
Maybe it would’ve been better if it was simpler. Not that it wasn’t already simple: Garner’s Riley North watches her family get gunned down by a cartel after its leader, Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), gets wind that her husband was pitched on robbing him. Garcia’s got cops, lawyers, and judges on his payroll, so even though Riley IDs them, the shooters still get off and Riley gets coldly written off as a crazy bitch while they laugh. So this Girl Scout den mother disappears for five years and comes back as an utter beast on the anniversary of her family’s death, ripping and tearing through Garcia’s seemingly endless crew of mooks in a whirlwind 24 hours.
Simple. Awesome. All you need. Too bad about all the extra stuff that’s thrown haphazardly into the first act. After the opening scene, we flash back five years to show Riley with her happy, but struggling family (Jeff Hephner as Chris, Cailey Fleming as Carly). Both parents are working to support themselves to live in an upper-class neighborhood that looks down on them. There’s a rival den mother in Carly’s Girl Scout troop that has it out for the Norths; she does a fairly shitty thing that draws people away from Carly’s birthday party, and on top of that, Riley’s boss forces her to work late, all of which leads to the last-minute birthday trip to the carnival that ends in Chris and Carly’s deaths. There’s ample evidence in the film, supported by the chain of events that leads to Riley going on the run, to suggest that the system of financial oppression that Riley was caught up in was just as responsible for her family’s death as Garcia’s gang. If it’s a little Palahnuik-esque in a bad way, it’s at least more interesting than “the brown people did it, kill them all.”
But nah, the brown people did it. And considering that, maybe it needed to be a little more fucking complicated after all. I’m just saying: You might have John Ortiz being his classy self as a pragmatic but well-intentioned cop, but that doesn’t mean I’m not picturing the hundreds of other Hispanic actors who had to take a deep breath and think about their families and their dreams before they walked in to audition for Cartel Goon #2 while a rallying cry of “Build the Wall” got passed around White America like joints at a DMB concert.
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! Riley’s taking anti-psychotic medication. Anything interesting done with that? Nope; at least not beyond giving Morel and editor Frédéric Thoraval an excuse to make a bunch of flashy Tony Scott-style cuts. Is that for the better? Probably—the world might not need another “IT’S ALL IN THEIR HEAD” narrative—but it’s still a loose thread that promises something more interesting than what we actually got. How about the loathsome defense attorney that tried to bribe her into shutting up? Killed offscreen. We watch her kill the judge who threw out the case instead; he’s an asshole to her, sure, but we’re apparently meant to take that as the sign that he’s on the take and thus deserves her vengeance. There’s also a bigger cartel leader that Garcia’s answering to; he shows up to make a threat, allude to Garcia being a small fish despite pretty much owning the city, and he’s never heard from again.
There are so many little details here that could point to a much more interesting movie, and instead of following these threads—hell, instead of using them to enrich the environment of the film—Morel charges bull-headedly past them and into two big twists. There’s a third-act heel turn that’s only there to a.) try and shock you, and b.) represent the corrupt cops the characters keep talking about. But before we get to that nonsense (because that’s what it is, utter nonsense), there’s the out-of-nowhere revelation that Garcia has a young daughter of his own. She shows up to make Riley hesitate before ganking Garcia after a successful raid on his compound, thus giving the heretofore unstoppable Riley a proper end-of-act-two setback, and then she figures prominently in the third act as she forces Riley to ponder the vicious circle of I’m just kidding, she disappears and Garcia doesn’t even mention her during the final showdown. It’s telling that the best scene in the movie (and the one that got the biggest reaction in my theater, for what it’s worth) is Riley meeting back up with her rival from her old life because that’s the one damn antagonistic relationship that was properly set up and paid off. Chad St. John (London Has Fallen) is the credited writer here; if his actual screenplay doesn’t resemble this so-called product, he should be allowed to whack Morel and every producer attached to this mess with his belt as recompense for the damage to his name.
How am I supposed to believe in any of these people? How am I supposed to be satisfied with their comeuppance when they all seem like ugly cardboard cutouts for Garner, the LeBron to this movie’s crew of useless Cavaliers, to mow down for our amusement? The movie might not be interested in being anything more than revenge porn, but by missing so many obvious openings, Morel seems to flaunt his disinterest in digging into his material. In a more entertaining film, that would be okay; admirable, even. But action, like sex, demands a satisfying payoff. Peppermint doesn’t even realize it went limp midway through.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images courtesy of STX Films.
Directed by Pierre Morel
Screenplay by Chad St. John
Produced by Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Richard H. Wright
Starring Jennifer Garner, John Ortiz, John Gallagher Jr., Juan Pablo Raba, Annie Ilonzeh
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 102 minutes