Jennifer Garner displays a particular set of skills in the latest actioner directed by Pierre Morel, who resuscitated the vigilante genre with Taken. Playing the sort of badass character who makes her Sydney Bristow on Alias look delicate, the actress brings an admirable physical commitment to her performance as a mother intent on getting justice after her husband and daughter are murdered. Peppermint lacks subtlety and anything even remotely resembling credibility, but like its heroine, it certainly gets the job done. It’s the sort of picture that would have been boffo on a grindhouse double bill in the 1970s.
Garner’s character, Riley North, doesn’t start out as a lethal assassin. She’s an ordinary Los Angeles housewife, working at a bank and lovingly devoted to her husband Chris (Jeff Hephner) and 10-year-old daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming). The family is having trouble making ends meet, leading Chris to consider joining a friend in a plot to rip off a local drug kingpin, Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). Chris backs out at the last minute, but not before the plan has been discovered. During an outing at an amusement park to celebrate Carly’s birthday, he and his daughter are brutally gunned down, with Riley seriously injured as well.
‘Death Wish’ on steroids.
Cooperating with the sympathetic detectives (John Ortiz, John Gallagher Jr.) investigating the case, Riley identifies the gunmen (criminals should probably avoid having distinctive facial tattoos) and testifies against them in court, even after receiving a combination bribe offer/threat from the defense attorney. But the deck is clearly stacked against her, with the obviously corrupt judge dismissing the case. When Riley goes berserk and tries to attack the killers, she’s tasered and is on her way to a mental hospital when she manages to escape.
Cut to five years later, which is apparently the amount of time needed to transform oneself into a lean, mean killing machine. The screenplay by Chad St. John (London Has Fallen) doesn’t bother to provide any details as to exactly how Riley becomes an expert in hand-to-hand combat and automatic weaponry, among many other talents. In any case, she’s back in Los Angeles and immediately begins her vendetta against Garcia and his minions, starting with the three men who murdered her family. She proves remarkably adept in her mission, showing no mercy as the body count lurches toward the triple digits. The frustrated Garcia, watching his men slaughtered like pigs in a series of daring raids, is reduced to giving such orders as “Put this bitch in a box before sunset!” and proclaiming, “This shit ends tonight!”
Along the way, Riley demonstrates that she hasn’t lost her maternal instincts. After an encounter with a young boy and his drunken lout of a father on a city bus, she takes matters into her own hands and shows the errant dad the error of his ways by sticking a gun in his mouth. And after being injured during one of her violent encounters, she briefly takes refuge in the house of a soccer mom who made her life miserable in the past. But not before punching her in the mouth.
Director Morel, who also made the Sean Penn starrer The Gunman (are you sensing a pattern?), stages the ultra-violent proceedings for maximum visceral effect. While the action sequences lack the morbid visual elegance of the John Wick movies, they’re cleanly choreographed, photographed and edited. Only the big finale, involving Riley, the criminals and the cops at Skid Row, proves disappointing, with reality, such as it is in a film like this, completely thrown out the window.
Garner, who hasn’t done this sort of thing in quite a while, handles the demanding physical aspects of her role with tremendous skill, demonstrating an admirable commitment to her training regimen. But unlike so many action stars, she’s equally adept at drama and comedy. Whether cracking sardonic jokes or showing tenderness toward a child, her character is sympathetic even when committing the most violent atrocities. The audience is on her side from the first moments to the ending, which provides the opportunity for Riley to make a return appearance in a sequel. After all, it took no less than five Death Wish movies for Charles Bronson to finally get the job done.
Production companies: Huayi Brothers Pictures, Lakeshore Entertainment, STXFilms
Distributor: STX Entertainment
Cast: Jennifer Garner, John Ortiz, John Gallagher Jr., Juan Pablo Raba, Annie Ilonzeh
Director: Pierre Morel
Screenwriter: Chad St. John
Producers: Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Eric Reid, Richard Wright
Executive producers: David Kern, James McQuaide, Renee Tab, Christopher Tuffin, Donald Tang, Wang Zhongjun, Wang Zhonglei, Felice Bee, Robert Simonds, Adam Fogelson
Director of photography: David Lanzenberg
Production designer: Ramsey Avery
Editor: Frederic Thoraval
Composer: Simon Franglen
Costume designer: Lindsay Ann McKay
Casting: Deanna Brigidi
Rated R, 102 minutes