Jennifer Garner Goes Full Punisher in Formulaic ‘Peppermint’

Peppermint” gleefully and brutally celebrates street justice. This revenge fantasy throws away proper transitions, logic and plausibility. It just wants to show someone taking the law into their own hands and blowing away bad people (literally). Jennifer Garner flexes and aims her arsenal more as a concept than as a real character, finding herself as the center of utter mayhem and hilarious dialogue. Even the very meaning of the title gets lost beneath all the extreme knifings, killings and snarling looks. Hovering over the story is also a disturbing approach to its Mexican villains.

The plot is quite simple. Garner plays Riley North, a typical Los Angeles suburban soccer mom who picks up her daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming) from practice, keeps a nice house in order and doesn’t get along with a pampered, rich neighbor. Unbeknown to Riley is that her husband Chris (Jeff Hephner) is being offered a dangerous gig by a friend. It would involve stealing money from a dangerous local thug named Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). At the last minute Chris calls his friend and opts out, but Garcia already knows what’s going on and sends tattooed henchmen to kill everybody. While visiting a fair the killers strike and Chris and Carly are gunned down, Riley is left injured but alive. The shooters are caught but the courts are so corrupt they go free. After a courtroom outburst Riley disappears for five years. When the shooters who killed her family are found hanging dead from a Ferris wheel, it’s a sign Riley is back. The soccer mom is now a gun-toting vigilante, obsessed with hunting down Garcia’s men and killing them all before taking down the drug lord himself. On her trail are detectives Moises Beltran (John Ortiz) and Stan Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.).

This is an odd, one-note movie that is as single-minded as the protagonist. Revenge is probably the great theme in all drama, but even as a popcorn thriller it requires some nuance and thought. “Peppermint” just slaps together some characters with names, gives them standard titles and rushes from one killing to another. The film has an awkward, clunky style where transitions and character developments sort of just happen. Riley is taken away from court into an ambulance then we cut to her family’s killers hanging upside down from the Ferris wheel. There’s no sense of the passage of time, it takes one of the detectives to say it’s been five years. Even more crucial for a movie of this type is the origin of the crime fighter. Never once do we see how it is that Riley transformed from soccer mom into The Punisher. Ortiz and Carmichael simply point out that Riley has appeared on YouTube kickboxing videos during her disappearance. Whatever kickboxing classes Riley took apparently came with tips on waging urban combat. The screenplay by Chad St. John, the scribe behind “London Has Fallen,” is an assortment of corny one-liners, hasty plotting and cliché stereotypes for villains. Once again we get a bunch of Mexican drug runners who talk and walk like ghetto warlords, complete with altars to the infamous Santa Muerte religious icon in their offices and hideouts. The henchmen are designed to look like members of the MS-13 gang Republicans have been so worked up about. But they don’t even have decent underworld dialogue, just grunts and shouts. Later on someone turns out to be a traitor in a development that quite literally comes out of nowhere.

Director Pierre Morel, whose magnum opus remains “Taken,” doesn’t seem to know what he wants to say with this story. The bottom line is that Riley wants to get revenge for the death of her family, something that makes complete sense. But does Morel believe what she’s doing is right? He seems oddly detached from the material. “Peppermint” is wall to wall killings, with Riley rarely pausing to think twice or even discriminate between henchmen and the actual men who ruined her life. She simply stabs and shoots anyone in her path. Bullets exploding through skulls are the film’s running motif. There are moments of torture, like when Riley finds the judge who let the killers go and nails his hands to a desk. Never does Morel strive for some complexity. Riley never has doubts about what she’s doing, even if she’s becoming in a way the very sort of person who killed her family, from the opposite side of the fence of course. She even cleans up crime on Skid Row, the movie’s one sole element of goodness. Yet there should be a bit more to the story, especially when Morel is dealing with a white woman mowing down Mexicans for an hour and forty minutes. One can assume Detective Ortiz is the token “good Latino.” Because Morel never even settles on a proper tone, the movie swerves from goofball funny to dreary and morbid, “Peppermint” ends up feeling like pure exploitation. Even the title, taken from the ice cream Riley’s daughter ordered at the fair before being shot, is never mentioned or referred to for the rest of the bloodbath.

Jennifer Garner is the star here and will garner (pun intended) most of the attention. She has the physique of a vigilante, looking like Lara Croft meets Domino Harvey. Reduced to a one dimensional cartoon, being physically ripped is all she stands out for. Unlike “The Punisher” or other tales of revenge, Garner’s Riley never feels like a haunted, driven person. She’s just a movie killing machine, popping in to shoot down gang bangers and punch her annoying neighbor on the nose.

“Peppermint” could have been at least good trash, but it decides to be an awkwardly-paced exercise in shallowness. If you want a high body count, step right in, but brains behind the brawns are sorely missed.

Peppermint” opens Sept. 7 in theaters nationwide.