Since 1974, there have been dozens of riffs on “Death Wish” featuring men driven to violent acts of vengeance (including a tepid remake earlier this year), so there’s no reason there shouldn’t be one about a woman. But “Peppermint” is in such a hurry to deliver the payoff of watching an aggrieved mother exact her revenge on the drug lord who killed her husband and daughter that it completely ignores the much bigger and more interesting story of exactly how she prepared for that showdown.
The formidable Jennifer Garner has already shouldered her fair share of badass characters, so the toughness required of her character here is entirely believable. But a script that seems to have been assembled by algorithm, plus routine direction by “Taken” helmer Pierre Morel, hobbles what might have been a moderately rousing (if in no way original) transformation story.
Garner plays Riley North, a vigilante carving a path of destruction across southern California motivated by the deaths of her husband Chris (Jeff Hephner, NBC’s “Chicago Med”) and Carly (Cailey Fleming, Young Rey in “The Force Awakens”) five years earlier at the hands of drug lord Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba, “Narcos”). Furious at the inactivity and indifference of a legal system unwilling to prosecute the men responsible, Riley targets not only the criminals but also the attorneys and judges whose delinquency enabled the killers to go free.
Vanishing from her old life — from any activity that could identify her to authorities — Riley conspires to exact her own brand of justice, even as police detectives Stan Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) and Moises Beltran (John Ortiz) are reluctant to pin a series of brutal murders on a grieving housewife. But when FBI agent Lisa Inman (Annie Ilonzeh, “Person of Interest”) shows up with incontrovertible evidence of her ongoing vendetta, Carmichael and Beltran race to apprehend her before she kills again, even as a possible mole in the police force working for Garcia threatens to undermine their investigation.
The movie opens on the rooftop of a downtown Los Angeles parking deck where, through some clumsy misdirection, a brutal fight in a car between Riley and one of her family’s killers initially looks like a couple making love, complete with fogged-up windows. It’s not clear why this choice was made, but then again, it’s not especially clear why any of the ones in the script by Chad St. John (“London Has Fallen”) were. Everything — including the action sequences, flashbacks and even the twists — feels half-considered, like somebody thought they could make a dumb story smart, or was forced to do the opposite.
Take Riley’s grease-monkey husband, for instance; it’s his potential involvement in a robbery that leads Garcia to their door, but after explicitly turning down the gig, exactly how and why does Garcia find out who he is to exact his retribution? Not to mention Riley’s entire journey from Devastated Mother to Expert Fighter, Shooter and Thief: that’s the movie to make, not one that focuses almost exclusively on the set-up of her vendetta, skips ahead five years and then haphazardly shuffles through some but not all of the people she blames for the crime and its irresolution.
Meanwhile, is it a good idea in 2018 for almost every one of the villains in the film to be written as and portrayed by Latinos? Probably not, but it’s easy. Of course, that could very easily be the guiding principle of the entire production, given that “Peppermint” glosses over everything that might actually be interesting about its central character and her journey to provide the quickest and most superficial gratification to audiences intrigued by its premise.
Morel, whose movies are brisk, stylish and mostly stupid, grafts late-era Tony Scott style onto Riley’s experiences (complete with double-exposure, speed-up-slow-down transitions) that lack his predecessor’s panache and, with the exception of a handful of hard-working performances, Scott’s compassionate eye behind the camera.
Garner, of course, is the film’s anchor, and she slogs through its brutality with as much dignity as it ever might possess; Riley is predictably superhuman, but the actress’ instincts to pause occasionally for reflection in the midst of the mayhem — a glimmer of her character’s residual humanity — give the story a vestige of dimensionality. On the other hand, John Ortiz, a stalwart character actor deserving of better challenges than he’s given here, contributes a quite frankly remarkable performance in the face of insurmountable jaded-cop-roused-to-care boilerplate.
The irony of their genuinely good work is that I’d eagerly watch a prequel about either of these two characters — her hardening her resolve, him losing his idealism — but the present-day action of Morel’s film does neither of them justice. But that idea, good or bad, would probably be harder to pull off than to saddle them with routine fight choreography and cliché-laden dialogue, which is why, rather than a fresh, female-driven alternative to all of those “angry man seeks vengeance” movies, “Peppermint” ultimately possesses the stale predictability of an unwrapped candy discovered at the bottom of a purse.