From an oddly conceived opening whose punchline is “Boy howdy, this movie’s rated R for fightin’ and not fuckin’!” to the hoariest of endings, Peppermint wastes no time diving into its own distaff, distasteful and disingenuous spin on Death Wish. The pool is shallow, the injury fatal and, in a feeble bit of mercy, the death quick for this artless, feckless garbage.
A better movie might pay faint lip service to the relative value of revenge in a world of endemic corruption. This one has a homeless person holding a sign that reads: “We’re fucked.” OK. Got it. Cool story, bro. The Death Wish remake from earlier this year was bad, too, but it at least attempted subversion before its descent into Bruce Willis smirkdom.
Peppermint asks that you consider nothing more about its ceaseless cavalcade of corpses than that the lithe, leonine Jennifer Garner — trying to render the comparative gee-whizzery of Alias a bloody afterthought — is the one littering the killing floor.
Garner plays Riley North, a working-class mother whose husband and daughter are gunned down by a Santeria-practicing, woman-beating, family-murdering drug lord nicknamed La Guillotina because “The Guillotine” just doesn’t quite blow the dog whistle loud enough. After the system fails her, Riley disappears for five years and resurfaces with ass-beating skills to bring a little Sinaloa zing to Santa Monica. Screw “Live, Laugh, Love.” Now it’s “Lock, Load, Lacerate.”
Yes, there are other characters — some played by the world’s Not Kyle Chandlers and Not Skeet Ulrichs, some played by venerable character actors John Ortiz or John Gallagher Jr., many of them embodying the most truly thankless iterations of step-behind / step-ahead cops you could possibly imagine.
If there are 60 cobbled-together seconds of Peppermint that work, it’s thanks to Garner’s smuggling of subtleties. During a key escape on foot, Riley quips an apology to the driver in front of whose vehicle she runs — the last vestige of a normal life before its descent into violence. The shot that follows, a long close-up on Garner’s face, is the only one of worth or thematic interest: In a world where the delivery of justice is denied, just keep running. To what? No idea. Just move. Move.
Peppermint suggests Riley’s shift to savagery is a side effect of brain trauma suffered in the initial drive-by — Limitless with a lust for blood or 3 Days to Kill with a conscience. Garner could easily portray a character whom we don’t entirely trust, haunted by hellish hallucinations that spill over into more morally dubious real-world acts. Instead, screenwriter Chad St. John employs only the most angelic-halo visits from her fallen daughter, whose favorite ice-cream flavor offers insipid inspiration for the film’s title.
Meanwhile, director Pierre Morel’s anonymous action beats do their best to make you forget he’s the forefather of this entire subgenre with his comparative masterwork Taken, whose sedate opening made its hero’s inevitable severity feel like a lightning strike. We knew Bryan Mills’ code and felt the danger in how far he’d stretch it. Its success also saw how far a studio could stretch our interest in Taken movies or TV series.
Peppermint instead quickly beats a retreat to the routine and reprehensible. Its only TV destination is to be padded to 2 ½ hours by commercials by cutting the umpteen wet, stringy shots of skin stapled together or split by bullets. At least a dozen heads are blown off. Riley assaults those she deems unfit parents. She humiliates a horrible mom from her daughter’s old scout troop by breaking her nose and shaming her divorce.
It’s somehow hilarious and depressing that, upon Peppermint’s ending, one patron vocally thought it was not rated R. Then again, the violence is not entirely the quibble here. It’s the way in which so much of it plays out in a California Skid Row that could speak more to invisible populations than just a shabby-chic backdrop for the dumbest of street fights. The onerous, ostentatious lengths it goes to in dangling so many children as small sacks of flesh to rip open or threaten with same. The bizarre manner in which it goes out of its way to hide Garner’s physical transformation under horrible editing and the use of stunt performers.
Most of all, it’s the substantially quantitative body count just adding up to a big, fat qualitative goose egg.