“Peppermint” Bungles Jennifer Garner’s Return as Action Star
Did the new Jennifer Garner film “Peppermint” suffer from some disastrous test screenings? Is that the reason that the actioner feels truncated and compromised in its edit? As presented, the movie about a vengeful mom taking down the drug cartel who murdered her husband and child feels rushed, discombobulated, and incomplete. There seem to be huge chunks missing in its storytelling, including a proper backstory and character development. Garner seems game to return to the type of kick-ass role she played on the TV series “Alias” 17 years ago, but the film usurps her at almost every turn.
Garner is 46 now, yet in her Tom Cruise-like way, she belies middle age. She’s as fit as most actors half her years, and she performs the dangerous stunts required of the role with aplomb. The star gives her mind, body, and soul over to this role of Riley North, the former soccer mom who turns into a rock ‘em, sock ‘em killing machine, yet the direction and script undercut her efforts throughout the hour and 45-minute run.
Instead of properly showing her character go from victim to vigilante, the filmmakers start by showing Riley already in her born-again Rambo mode as she shoots a thug point blank in a car. It instantly ruins the dramatic turn we’ll later as she arcs from middleclass mom to murderer. After that ill-conceived opener, the film flashes back to her humbler days as a middle-class housewife, but it plays almost moot after a start like that. As her idyllic life is ruined when her husband Chris (Jeff Hephner) and adorable daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming) are gunned down at an L.A.winter carnival by drive-by thugs, we grow impatient because we already know what’s coming in its aftermath.
Garner tries her damnedest though, emoting with great fervor in the scene where she testifies against her family’s killers. When the corrupt judge lets them walk because he’s on the take, Riley leaps out of the witness box, spitting rage at the gang members. Soon afterwards, she escapes the authorities who want to silence her, and then the film flashes forward to five years later. Riley returns to town, buff, trained in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat, and ready to wreak revenge. Unfortunately, those five years are left completely offscreen.
The film fails to show how this mouse turn into a lion. Instead, they let Riley’s transformation get explained in a hasty monologue by FBI agent Lisa Inman (Annie Illonzeh) that wouldn’t pass muster in a first-year screenwriting class. (The script tells, rather than shows.) Why were scenes showing Riley becoming the avenger excised, so the film could get to her offing bad guys all the sooner? No matter, the absence of such backstory disconnects us from Riley and her incredible journey.
The film is also edited far too abruptly in all of its action scenes. Riley starts mowing down the men of drug kingpin Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba) but the action is all cut too quickly that it barely plays. Is the film cutting so fast to work around Garner’s stunt double? Perhaps, but the slice-and-dice technique undermines the character and the actress. “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” worked so well because the framing and editing allowed for us to see Tom Cruise genuinely performing all his stunt work. Here, one can’t really tell if it’s Garner or not and that further distances us from Riley and what she’s doing.
Even more ruinous is the fact that once Riley becomes the avenging angel, her character development virtually stops. She’s now little more than a killing machine, systematically gunning down every bad-ass who gets in her way while barely batting an eye. She’s ruthless and remorseless, thinking nothing of shooting people point blank in the head or heart. Riley even dispatches them with sarcastic jibes, making her revenge tale seem almost as fluffy as some of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lesser entries.
Yet for all the eagerness to exploit the bloodletting, director Pierre Morel and scripter Chad St. John don’t even maximize such scenes. One of Riley’s earliest victims is the corrupt judge (Jeff Harlan) at the hearing for her family’s killers, but the film doesn’t even bother to show Riley overpowering him in his home. Instead, he’s already tied up, gagged, and nailed to his desk when the scene starts. The narrative seems far too anxious to move onto other killings. Indeed, there are almost 40 more bodies that Riley will leave in her wake, so perhaps that drove the haste.
Occasionally, Riley hallucinates that Carly whispers some sage advice in her ear, yet she’s never haunted by her husband Chris. Doesn’t she miss him too? A better back story could’ve told us more about their relationship as well, good or bad, but instead he’s just the man in the photo booth pics Riley clings to throughout. She spent five years training to avenge his death, but the script never brings Chris back in any significant flashback or fantasy scene that would add dimension to Riley’s mission and affections.
The film actually spends far more time developing her pursuers. Detectives Stan Carmichael and Moises Beltran (John Gallagher, Jr. and John Ortiz, respectively), and gangster Garcia get nearly as much screen time as Riley, and they are given a lot more dialogue too. Riley says almost nothing throughout the second half of the film except when she breaks into the home of rival mom Pam (Pell James). She drops in to dress a wound and steal the woman’s car but beats Pam up and ties her to a chair to do so. Granted, Pam’s a pill, but her abuse seems psychotic on Riley’s part. The film could’ve explored such out-of-control rage, but blithely ignores deepening the narrative.
Sure, the film pays lip service to Riley’s motherly instincts as they bubble up during her quest. She blows a chance to take out Garcia when his young daughter appears, and even sacrifices her position in a shoot-out to save another young girl. Riley’s sentimental alright, but it seems inconsistent with her willingness to endanger standers-by and drive maniacally down crowded streets to achieve her goals.
Everything in the movie zips by with haste, wanting to be nothing more than a slam-bamdiversion at the Cineplex, but then why cast such a talent as Garner in the lead? She proved on “Alias” that she can spin action fare into gold while creating characters with depth too. This film doesn’t even have enough commercially-calculated sense to show Riley confronting and vanquishing the D.A.’s on the take who enabled the cartel hitmen to go free. Instead, everything is spliced together with the same jittery, get-it-done mojo as the action scenes. Garner and the genre deserve better.
Catch the trailer below:
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