Jennifer Garner goes back to her Alias days as an ass-kicking action hero, but its muddy action and faux-Punisher derivations make it another late-August dud.
The past few decades have seen an amazing resurgence in the vengeance film. In a world gone mad, it can be pretty cathartic to watch one person battle against all odds, operating within a very basic morality, to set right what has gone so horribly wrong. However, whether our (anti)hero is John Wick, Beatrix Kiddo, or Frank Castle, it is their creativity and unique skill that makes these films such a rush to watch. And this is where Peppermint fails so spectacularly. Instead of blazing its own trail of unique revenge, it follows the well-worn path of so many movies before (most notably, and to an extreme fault, The Punisher).
The similarities to Marvel’s most vicious vigilante and Peppermint’s Riley North (Jennifer Garner) begin almost instantly. Riley is a mother, devoted wife, and put-upon employee at a bank. The night of her daughter’s birthday, no one shows up, and the family decides to go to the local Christmas carnival instead. However, Riley’s husband secretly pulled out of a plan to rob the local drug cartel.
While the family gets ice cream (peppermint being her daughter’s favorite), the cartel guns down the whole family, leaving Riley as the sole survivor. Riley fingers the men who shot her family, only for the judge and DA to dismiss the case in the cartel’s favor. Riley has a very understandable nervous breakdown in court and escapes to…well…its not very clear. But she travels the world for five years to learn guns and fighting, until she returns to exact revenge against all she blames for the lack of justice for her family.
While this plot isn’t the sole property of The Punisher series, the arc of Riley North and Frank Castle parallel so tightly for the first fifteen minutes that it becomes very hard to separate for the rest of the film. This is to say nothing of the fact that screenwriter Chad St. John made his breakthrough with the (pretty damn good) Punisher fan movie Dirty Laundry. Even upon Riley’s return to Los Angeles, she lives inside a very similar van as to the one driven by Frank Castle in the fan flick.
Similarities aside, the potential for an exciting revenge film were still there, but much of it is kneecapped by the direction of Pierre Morel (Taken). It was very odd that a film that relies so heavily on its action, directed by a man that has made his name in the genre, featured very few notable fight sequences. A lot of this is the result of not having a clean tone during Riley’s fights: one fight may feature a multitude of hard cuts, making the action feel quick, but hard to follow. The next is suddenly in slow motion, making her suddenly seem intricately attuned to her surroundings, but nullifying any sense of danger.
The only moments that do work are when Morel allows the camera to linger on the action for more than a few seconds, allowing the action and tension to build before Garner goes for the killing blow. This becomes all the more frustrating when the first act is full of stories of Riley’s actions, but so little of her actually fighting. The direction also feels as though it is stuck in the mid-2000s. From the washed-out, flash cut, shaky cam of the opening credits to the nu-metal end credits music, it feels as though Morel hasn’t done much to evolve his direction since making his mark in 2004.
Probably one of the most egregious things that should be noted in Peppermint, though, are arguably the serious racist undertones of the whole film. On its face, the movie is about a woman killing those who wronged her, but the on-screen body count by her hand is one white man to a couple dozen men of color. It makes it very hard to see anything other than a white woman on a spree of racially-charged revenge. It also doesn’t sit well that her white victims are a judge, district attorney, and a lawyer, while 99% of the Latinos in the film were all in the generic cartel. Not only that, but the majority of white men she struck down are killed off-screen, but we see nearly every single kill directed at the Latino cast.
While it’s doubtful that a white vengeance movie is the kind of film that Jennifer Garner set out to star in, the undertones speak for themselves – in a political and media environment that sees people of color as increasingly dispensable, it’s more important than ever to think about these kinds of implications, however inadvertent.
As for Garner, she’s not given a whole lot to work with, so it becomes very hard to feel much of anything for her character. She does have a stand out moment during her nervous breakdown, but not much else happens to make Riley genuinely intimidating. Her character doesn’t change a whole lot after her family is killed, making her more intense lines fall flat. John Gallagher, Jr. (Short Term 12, 10 Cloverfield Lane) brings a charming fucked-up energy to his Detective Carmichael, and the cartel actors do their level best with the ‘90s gang dialogue generator given to them. Of the whole film, the brightest stand-out would be the two minutes of screen time given to Seven Seconds’ Michael Mosley, who effortlessly shifts between endearing to threatening as a hardass cartel attorney.
As late-summer actioners go, Peppermint is far from refreshing, which is a true bummer. It would be truly awesome to get new lady of vengeance, but as hard as Peppermint baits for a sequel, this will probably be the last we see of Riley North.
Peppermint makes a curiously strong debut in theaters Friday, September 7th.