On Alias, Jennifer Garner became a genuine star in a show where she sought revenge against a group who killed her fiancé. With the help of J.J. Abrams, Garner was the rare female badass action hero in which the audience had actual stakes in her mission. Almost twenty years later, Garner has been married and become a mother, and her latest action character in Peppermint has grown in much the same way. Garner has proven that she can pull off emotional resonance through a badass figure, but unfortunately Garner can’t save what it easily one of the worst films of 2018.
Garner plays Riley North, who witnesses her husband and daughter gunned down in a drive-by on her daughter’s birthday. The reasoning? Her husband simply considered, and then turned down, an offer by his friend to steal from a local drug dealer. The three killers are set free due to an obviously corrupt judicial system, but not before Riley attempts to laughably attack them while still in court. The judge sentences Riley to a mental institution, but she makes her escape and goes on the lam for five years.
On the five year anniversary of her family’s death, the three murderers are inexplicably found hanging upside down from a ferris wheel near where Riley’s watched her family get gunned down. The judge and lawyers in the case have all been found dead on the same day, and despite the police’s ambivalence that this could all be connected, the truth is Riley is back and ready for revenge against anyone responsible for her family’s destruction.
Peppermint’s story of retribution is one of the most inept and perplexingly stupid action films to get a wide release in recent memory. Director Pierre Morel (Taken) films Peppermint with all the care of a 2000s nü-metal music video (less Korn, more Adema), with the awful soundtrack to match. Morel consistently uses a technique which seems like the projector is shuttering and shaking whenever action starts, and it’s used at nearly any slight pitch in action. With a screenplay by Chad St. John, whose name suggests he works in porn, Riley seemingly has an ability to transcend the limits of space and time. Riley will appear in places that make no sense considering what came before and after, and her apparent knowledge of every villain’s location is unparalleled and idiotic.
St. John and Morel don’t even bother adding any moral ambiguity to Riley’s plight, despite heavily hinting at it in Riley’s origin story. When Riley’s daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming) suggests that her mother should punch another mother’s lights out, Riley calmly states that such actions would only make her as bad as the asshole mommy. Cut forward five years, Riley breaks into that other mother’s house, mocks her for losing her husband, holds a gun to her head – which causes her to urinate on herself – and then joke about burning her house down with her in it. This is played for laughs, as if of course Riley has earned the ability to treat other people this way. After all, Riley is on a mission of justice, and the people of the shanty town that she lives in consider her their guardian angel. Anyone that gets in Riley’s way is deserving of what they get.
Also suspect is how Morel constantly reinforces stereotypes, especially with the many Latino gangsters that fill Peppermint. Riley actually attacks a group of mobsters in a piñata factory and very rarely does Riley kill a non-white person. St. John’s screenplay even plays with the idea that we’ll expect one cop to be bad solely because he’s not white. The way many of these villains become caricatures is lazy and borderline racist.
This is arguably Garner’s worst film ever, in a career that has included films about butter sculpting competitions, a talking Kevin Spacey cat, raising a plant boy, and two dudes trying to find their car. Garner still can pull off action effectively when she needs to, but Morel does her no favor with his terrible direction. Morel has Garner jumping into a piñata factory with flying candy, like a low budget John Woo film, or in unintentionally hilarious action sequences set right after Riley has lost her family. Morel and St. John hint at an explanation for Riley’s missing five years that includes trips overseas, underground fighting rings and bank robberies, but these are only mentioned in passing, as opposed to giving us some added depth to Riley’s story.
In the hunt for Riley are LAPD detectives Stan Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) and Moises Beltran (John Ortiz), both actors who deserve far better than the cliche cop one-liners that St. John feed them. Their banter is embarrassing and would feel cheesy even for a CBS cop show. It’s exhausting watching these talented actors being relegated to such horrible dialogue. And for some reason, the LAPD sideplot introduces Method Man as a narcotics detective very late in the third act, in a role that could’ve easily gone to literally anyone.
Peppermint is embarrassing proof that Hollywood has a problem creating strong female action roles, even for actresses who have more than proven they are capable. Peppermint is an ugly, paper-thin, moronic revenge fantasy that wants the audience to revel in constant bloodshed and deserved anger. Peppermint is irredeemable and garbage in every way. Garner’s next revenge mission should be taking out whoever convinced her this was a good idea.