The system failed. She won’t.
Alright, stop me when this starts to sound familiar.
Riley North (Jennifer Garner) is living a decent life, with her ray of sunshine being her ten-year-old daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming), and loving husband Chris (Jeff Hephner) supporting them. The thing is, Riley and Chris are struggling to make ends meet. Despite this, the couple decides to put aside their worries for their daughter’s sake, treating her to a Christmas carnival for her birthday. While leaving the fair with ice-cream, Chris and Carly are gunned down in a drive-by shooting, with Riley getting wounded, but surviving, this a message from powerful cartel leader Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), whom Chris was thinking of robbing.
In the aftermath, Riley manages to successfully identify the gang members responsible, but the subsequent court-case is short-lived thanks to insufficient evidence. Enraged, Riley tries to attack the killers but fails, retreating.
Five years later, Riley returns reborn as a hardened assassin, determined to destroy everyone involved in her family’s deaths.
It’s probably unfair to cite unoriginality in a classic revenge setup such as this, but perhaps if we’re to mention that the writer, Chad St. John, was responsible for the proof-of-concept short sequel of sorts The Punisher: Dirty Laundry (2012), and the more well-known hardcore action feature London Has Fallen (2016), things might come more into focus. The guy digs angry, violent retaliation.
Paired with the often humorless Frenchman Pierre Morel, who’s made a living out of such morbid action affairs like The Gunman (2015) and, oh yeah, the film that effectively typecast Liam Neeson, 2008’s Taken, what we have here in Peppermint is an ugly, mean-spirited film.
In a surprise to no one, the best thing the movie has going for it is the return of Jennifer Garner as an action anti-hero. Having done five years on J.J. Abrams’ hit TV series Alias (2001-06) then quite consciously removing herself from the action genre altogether after 2007’s The Kingdom, choosing generally lighter fare such as Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009), Garner’s fans have wondered when they’d get a chance to see her kick ass again. When she gets into full swing — channeling a kind of John Wick-like directness in her use of firearms — you’d swear Garner never stopped training. What’s horribly unfortunate, though, is the path that Chad St. John and Pierre Morel have chosen to showcase, in what could’ve been a fist-pumping homecoming.
For starters, the film awkwardly begins medias res, halfway through Riley’s quest as she mercilessly knocks off her next victim, before flashing back to one heck of an eye-rolling section, with Jeff Hephner, Interstellar (2014), and young Cailey Fleming, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), struggling to convince beyond daytime soap opera standards. I mean, when you see how much opportunity Garner is trying to give them to shine, it’s no wonder the typically tattooed gangbangers end up using all their bullets on them. The way editor Frédéric Thoraval, Sinister (2012), attempts to cut right through their scenes suggests he probably knew they were in dudsville too, with the opening trying to keep viewers patient for the massacre to follow.
When we do get to the killings, it’s pretty friggin’ relentless. Some of the stunt work is quite good with a mix of close-encounters, very direct gunplay and, you guessed it, explosions, with an awesome giant ass warehouse blast being a sure-fire highlight. The thing that’s hard to shake off, though, is the incredibly nasty and bleak atmosphere of it all.
While movie violence can often feel gratuitous, what’s hard to decipher in this story is whether we’re supposed to cheer in blood-soaked ‘justice,’ like in the original Death Wish (1974), or feel the horror of a protagonist going way too far — think the incredibly twisted Korean thriller I Saw The Devil (2010). I wasn’t a fan of Taken for the exact same reason, and felt as though there wasn’t any sort of moral compass to guide a reaction; the film seems to try and win patrons over by having a charismatic lead do very bad things to very bad people. It sort of makes one want to take a long shower afterward, after wallowing in such a grimy place.
Stemming from this, while filmmaker Morel is content throwing out any sense of morality, he also tosses away any satisfactory explanation as to how Riley North goes from essentially echoing the damsel-in-distress version of Sarah Connor in The Terminator (1984) to her take-no-prisoners soldier in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991).
Characters in these plots are either everyday people that learn how to be violent — James Wan’s highly underseen Death Sentence (2007) — or are deceptively quiet individuals with troubled pasts, becoming reawakened — hello The Equalizer (2014). There is catharsis to be had in either approach when done right. Peppermint tries to have it both ways, without any real investment in unpacking either.
While Sarah Connor’s journey is explained, thanks to a healthy gap between installments and smooth exposition from support characters, Peppermint uses a muddy YouTube video to expose what Riley’s apparently been up to in the time jump, getting involved in martial arts in an underground octagon somewhere in Thailand, which is meant to tell us everything we need to know. What about showing us the blood, sweat and tears shed in a montage where we see Riley harden into a killer? How about exploring the setbacks, making her focus all the more determined? It’s a wasted opportunity. The revenge genre relies heavily on leaning into the darker desires of its audience, and scenes like these not only would’ve transitioned Riley’s character from loving mother to brutal assassin, but also created an atmosphere of anticipation that would’ve sweetened the payoff.
Jennifer Garner devotees will clamor over one another to get a look at Peppermint and will probably be satisfied enough, but for anyone else, there are much better revenge outings out there.
By the way, if you’re wondering about the movie’s rather stupid title — Riley’s daughter orders a peppermint ice cream before grabbing a hail of bullets, so I guess it’s a ‘last happy memory’ thing. I rather prefer the explanation through the dialogue featured in the so-bad-it’s-good trailer (which is missing in the actual feature), where Riley tells her daughter that she has ‘peppermint in her butt.’ While we may not learn the true origin of Riley’s badassery, at least we know that this movie came from someone’s ass.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie