‘Bloody, gruesome but psychotically theatrical’
The insane revenge movie “Peppermint” starts to make a lot more sense when you realize that it was directed by the man who brought us “Taken” (Pierre Morel) and written by one at least partially responsible for “London Has Fallen” (Chad St. John). It’s a movie in which the central character, Riley North (Jennifer Garner), is called a “female vigilante” by a local news anchor, and a “soccer mom” by Los Angeles police. She uses a maxi pad as a makeshift bandage to sop up the blood from a gushing knife wound and may have a higher body count than John Wick by the end of the film.
Why, you might ask, all the bloodshed, mayhem and stereotypes? Riley is just a regular middle class mom juggling a job and parental responsibilities in a sensible midi skirt and conservative sweater before she watches her husband and young daughter get gunned down by agents of a powerful Latin drug boss at a public fair. In slow motion. With ice cream cones in hand. It’s almost disappointing that there’s no shot of the melting peppermint ice cream next to her fallen family, but there are plenty of silly ones to come (like, say, a bloody handprint on a tombstone that the police use as an indication that she’s been there).
Riley of course survives, barely, and awakes from a coma, gets a grief pixie haircut and immediately identifies the three men with the face tattoos who killed her husband and daughter. But a deeply corrupt system lets them walk, and Riley goes rogue, disappearing for a few years to learn how to be a killer and return on the five-year anniversary of the incident to execute all who wronged her.
The movie doesn’t show much, if anything, of her training, which is summarized in exposition by an FBI agent (Annie Ilonzeh), but just picks up with her killing spree and her life operating out of a skid row home base. It’s a bit of whiplash, her transition from Laura Ashley to Lara Croft, but you get used to the new Riley fairly quickly (and honestly there wasn’t a lot of the old one to latch on to either).
And goodness, she is not kidding around with these murders, which are not only bloody and gruesome but psychotically theatrical. Her Terminator-like focus on her revenge path still allows her to violently scold a shoddy parent on a public bus.
The funny thing about “Peppermint” is that even in spite of its ridiculousness and clichés and flashbacks filled with stock sounds of giggling children, the movie does start to lull you into submission when the revenge stops really start picking up. And there are a few twists and turns (some eye-rolling, some not) as you wait for her inevitable showdown with Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba).
It’s a movie that is really best seen with a big, rowdy crowd who will be there to laugh at all the bravado. “Peppermint” is not some model of equality, it’s just violent escapism that happens to have a woman in the lead role. And, frankly, as long as this genre continues to entertain audiences, Garner is a compelling a lead as any, and more so than quite a few of the men who get so many parts like this. But maybe, just maybe, next time consider a woman or two behind the camera (and script) as well.
Garner has a very particular set of skills. Skills she had already acquired at the start of her long acting career. Skills that, with a few noble exceptions, Hollywood has had a nightmare of a time trying to properly showcase. In the vigilante film “Peppermint”, “Taken” Morel finally looks to exploit one of Garner’s defining skillsets that has long gone untapped, giving this effortlessly empathetic yet deceptively steely actress her first chance to play a kick-ass action star since the deservedly beloved “Alias” and the deservedly forgotten “Elektra”. As a onetime Girl Scout den mother turned brass-knuckled avenging angel, Garner gives everything that is asked of her, from brute physicality to dewy-eyed tenderness, but this half-witted calamity botches just about everything else. Drably by-the-numbers except for the moments where it goes gobsmackingly off-the-rails, “Peppermint” misfires from start to finish.
Garner stars as Riley North, whom we first meet cold-bloodedly dispatching a nameless assailant in the shadow of the Los Angeles skyline, then limping back to her van on Skid Row to administer some gruesome self-surgery. In the aftermath, Riley is hospitalized for a month, evicted from her home, and approached by LAPD detective Stanley Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr) to identify the shooters in court. Thanks to some comically corrupt judges and prosecutors, the killers are allowed to walk without trial, and Riley is committed to a mental hospital. Smashing Stanley over the head with a fire extinguisher on the way there, she escapes.
You might reasonably expect the rest of the film to concern itself with Riley’s years on the run, as she mourns her loved ones, trains to become a master of the deadly arts, tracks her family’s killers through webs of underworld intrigue, and revels in the queasy catharsis of dealing out final justice. Instead, “Peppermint” makes sure to keep the meat of its heroine’s journey largely offscreen. When next we see Riley, she’s somehow already turned herself into a finely-honed killing machine, left the bodies of the three gunmen strung up dead on a Ferris wheel, and launched into a one-woman campaign to take down Garcia’s entire cartel. Now a disheveled drunk, Stanley is dragged back onto the case, assisted by a straight-arrow partner (John Ortiz) and a hard-nosed FBI agent (Annie Ilonzeh).
As usual, Garner displays an almost heroic refusal to smirk, sigh, or sleepwalk through any of this, never acting as though the material is beneath her, even when it’s something she could be scraping off the bottom of her shoe. But it’s hard to say if the film would have necessarily been worse off if she let us know she’s in on the joke, as “Peppermint” is never more risible than in the moments it takes itself most seriously. From “Death Wish” onward, films of this ilk have long been dogged by a reactionary, if not borderline fascistic, approach to matters of race, and “Peppermint” makes a ham-fisted go at splitting the difference by casting actors of color in the supporting good guy roles, while also playing to Fox News’ swampiest MS-13 fever dreams in its depiction of Garcia’s gang. (It makes no attempt, however, to dodge the white savior tropes that are also endemic to vigilante pics, with one laugh-out-loud shot in particular pushing things well beyond the point of parody.) (Agencies)
Perhaps some viewers could ignore all that if “Peppermint” delivered on the action front, but save for one slam-bang shootout in a pinata shop, there’s a veneer of cheapness to the whole endeavor that keeps even the numbskull thrills from really connecting. Morel’s habit of shaking the camera to underscore every strong emotion does nothing to hide the script’s lack of a real character arc, and a score that seems sourced from Evanescence outtakes only strengthens the feeling that this film is a relic from some bygone era. Maybe it should have stayed there. (Agencies)
By Lindsey Bahr