Peppermint is a waste of Jennifer Garner’s time and ours. A lazy, inept, at times xenophobic, exploitation revenge saga that seems frightened of its own shadow. You know you’re in trouble when the first half of the movie consists of multiple deaths off-screen.
Riley North (Jennifer Garner) is a loving, hard working, mother. Her daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming) is a precocious girl excited for her birthday. Riley’s husband Chris (Jeff Hephner), a mechanic, gets roped into helping a friend rip off the cartel. Chris backs out at the last second but by then it’s too late.
Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba) discovers the attempted robbery and punishes all involved…including Riley and her family while out celebrating Carly’s birthday. The plot wheels of the genre go round and round.
Pierre Morel has taken what could have been a nice little twist to an exploitation staple and instead, we get a timid, laughably offensive, gutless, meandering slog. To give you some idea of what you’re going into, yes, the rumors are true. Riley does infiltrate a cartel and hang out where they launder money, which also doubles as a pinata factory.
Morel had the good fortune to get Jennifer Garner and promptly proceeds to waste all her talents. Garner, if you may recall, before becoming a romantic comedy staple, was an action heroine. Both on television and in the movies, Garner’s specialty when she was starting out was trained, covert killers. Sometimes the scripts and choices were better than others. Garner was the go-to actress for, at the time, the novel role of “tough girl with a gun”.
Peppermint starts out with Riley killing an unknown Latino gang member in the front seat of his car. Immediately after it flashes back in time, five years ago. But it doesn’t go back and forth. Instead we go from a promising opening scene of a badass to seeing her before as a wife and mother. Both, it should be mentioned, Garner nails perfectly because as I’ve said, she is an actress of better caliber and more worth than she is often attributed.
After Riley and her family are gunned down, a man visits Riley at her house. He enters without her inviting him in and never introduces himself. Rather he goes straight into making veiled and ambiguous threatening statements. We learn at the preliminary hearing the man is, in fact, the defense attorney for the cartel. A fact Riley apparently forgets to tell her own prosecuting attorney or the judge. Well, until the attorney begins to badger her and destroy her credibility.
Broken and weeping she tells the court about the attorney’s visit. The prosecuting attorney has—and I’m not exaggerating—zero dialogue. He’s not even in focus in the scenes he’s in. Riley bum rushes the defendants, gets tackled and tased, then sentenced to a psych eval. While on transport, she dings both the detective working on her case, Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) and the EMT with an oxygen tank and runs out into the streets-and vanishes.
Five years later.
Peppermint is one of those movies where the stuff we don’t see is more interesting than the stuff we do. The men who killed Riley’s husband and daughter are among her first victims when she returns to exact her vengeance. She kills them off-screen. We see their corpses hanging from a Ferris wheel. Carmichael and his partner, Moises (John Ortiz), discuss other victims such as both the prosecuting and defense attorneys.
Enter the FBI. Agent Inman (Annie Ilonzeh) briefs Carmichael and Moises on what Riley has been doing the past five years. Youtube footage of Riley fighting in underground boxing matches plays in the background of their conversations. We hear stories of how she seems to have seemingly dropped off the grid. All of which is inherently more interesting than anything we’ve seen so far. The implied Peppermint is more dramatically compelling and action-packed than the actual Peppermint.
Chad St. John’s script has a subplot where Riley appears to be playing some grand game of three-dimensional chess. Diego, while meeting with his higher-ups, learns he is on thin ice. Shipments have gone missing and there is talk he may be skimming. Diego’s troubles are only beginning because, the now infamous pinata shootout, was actually a headquarters for money laundering. Diego had been working with the Korean mob as part of a truce.
Riley slowly gumming up the system and framing the cartel for it; ineptness and traitorous behavior is a nifty idea. So, of course, St. John’s script drops the idea almost immediately. Diego being the only surviving link to the death of Riley’s family, it becomes a cat and mouse game between the two.
Riley, bleeding from a wound, raids a medicine cabinet and uses a tampon pad to stop the bleeding. A wonderful little touch that hints at a vast graveyard of missed opportunities. I suspect this was Garner’s idea. It’s an idea that reeks of inventiveness and awareness of how women’s issues are perceived. Something that Morel and St. John have shown hilariously little knowledge of.
Gallagher’s Carmichael is so underwritten that even an actor of his caliber seems adrift and unsure what to do. He’s meant to be tortured or at least we’re meant to think that but it never comes across. It might be a case of Gallagher playing a character with his own motives close to his chest but it comes off as if he’s sleepwalking.
Towards the end, as Riley closes in on Garcia, the action begins to pick up. Peppermint started out as the movie that was afraid to kill and gradually becomes the movie that kills indiscriminately in the dark and at a distance. Much of the back half of the film is shot in dark underlit rooms at night.
It’s a tactic used by directors when they are not confident in their action setups or as shortcuts to hide lazy shot compositions. Either way, it transforms Peppermint from an infuriating lazy film into one that is hard to make out at times. Riley uses a phone to take a video of herself in a live streaming broadcast with the local news station. Suddenly she is well lit. Score one for Android users.
Peppermint is the very definition of “offensively lazy”. Yes, Riley kills characters that are not Latino, and the movie makes great strides to differentiate between Latinos and the cartel. But the majority of body count we do see is brown. Contrast that with the body count off-screen, which is white. Riley also, through the course of the movie, becomes a local folk hero. She lives in a van parked at skid row. A mural of Riley, portraying her as a literal angel, with wings topped of with guns at end of each feather, is on a wall near her van. Literally and figuratively she is a white savior.
Exploitation films can be tricky. The genre is rife with problematic elements that can either be explored, unpacked, or interrogated. Or, it could revel in its own sleaziness greedily embracing every stereotype and trope. Peppermint is a middling convoluted excuse of an attempt. Morel and St. John seem ignorant, or worse, inattentive, to the story, they are accidentally telling.
Peppermint never rises to the lowest rung of even the most basic action movie. Garner deserves better. For that matter, so do we.