“Peppermint” Jennifer Garner A Vengeful Mom!

Imagine what the Liam Neeson abduction thriller “Taken” (2008) might have been had a woman wreaked havoc galore, and you’ll have a fair idea what director Pierre Morel’s “Peppermint” (*** OUT OF ****) sets out to accomplish, casting “Alias” actress Jennifer Garner as a vengeful mom.  Incidentally, Pierre Morel knows something about violent vigilante thrillers since he helmed “Taken.”  Moreover, Morel is no stranger to actioneers, with films such as “District B-13,” “From Paris With Love,” and “The Gunman” on his resume.  At 102 minutes, this exciting but predictable revenge epic adheres to the sure-fire formula with one surprise and stacks of villains riddled with lead.  Jennifer Garner is a revelation as the vengeance-fueled wife/mom who devastates a Mexican cartel venture.  She looks believable, and she could probably pen a book about the regimen she endured to acquire her slim but muscular physique.  Unfortunately, our heroine’s transition from a happily married bank manager to a pistol-packing Dirty Harriett occurs off-screen, so “Peppermint” leaves us with ambiguous feelings about her familiarity with firearms.  Unless you catch yourself thinking about this missing episode during the movie, then it doesn’t pose a problem.  Garner qualifies as a sympathetic heroine not without some flaws, and audiences are supposed to applaud for her just as we did Bruce Willis in the latest “Death Wish” movie.  The unpardonable flaw is her cartel adversaries.  In a movie like “Peppermint” half of the fun is watching the bad guys get their just comeuppance in the most excruciating way.  Sadly, the Hispanic henchmen with facial tattoos galore flourish their submachine guns with the same abandon as Tinker Bell waved her wand.  Stone-cold killers without qualm, they display no sympathy for anyone, and they pull their triggers without blinking.  These are the rudimentary elements in “London Has Fallen” scenarist Chad St. John’s exciting, but by-the-numbers screenplay.  The villains rank as impersonal plug-uglies, with little that makes them memorable.  Actor Juan Pablo Raba doesn’t make much of a one-dimensional impression as the narcotics chieftain.  He has a sadistic gleam in his eyes, but he behaves without exception like every stereotypical cartel honcho.

The set-up in “Peppermint” is the best part.  The premise has Riley North’s straight-arrow husband Chris (Steve Carrell look-alike Jeff Hephner of “Interstellar”), who owns an auto-repair garage, refusing to drive the getaway car for a friend who wants to rob the mob.  The mob in this instance is one of the many cartel clans in Los Angeles.  Although Chris backed out of the deal, this doesn’t absolve him of the crime he had pondered, and cartel crime boss Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba of “Shot Caller”) decides to make an example of him to others.  Meantime, Firefly den mother Riley (Jennifer Garner of “The Kingdom”) and her nine-year girl, Carly (Cailey Fleming of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), are leaving a Firefly cookie sale when another Firefly mom, Peg (Pell James of “Zodiac”), with her own daughter, denounces Riley for invading their territory for the cookie sales.  As it turns out, Carly’s birthday was supposed to take place later that evening, but Riley missed it because her boss made her close the suburban bank where she works as a part-time manager.  The spat with spiteful Peg destroys the prospect of Carly’s party, because Peg invited all of Carly’s friends to her own daughter’s festivity.  Meantime, Chris and Riley celebrate Carly’s birthday with ice cream and a whirl on a Ferris wheel.  Three Hispanics with machine guns ambush Chris and Riley as they are leaving.  Chris dies in a fusillade of gunfire along with his daughter Carly, but Riley miraculously survives with a head wound.

LAPD Detective Stan Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr. of “Jonah Hex”) and his partner, Detective Moises Beltran (John Ortiz of “Public Enemies”) convince Riley after she recovers from her gunshot wound to testify against the three Hispanics.  Alas, the cartel has already gotten into gear for the trial.  The cartel’s defense attorney tries to bribe Riley, but she refuses to take a gaping envelope stuffed with $100 bills. This attorney spots her medication and uses it to undermine her credibility as a witness.  A corrupt judge, Stevens (Jeff Harlan of “Auto Focus”), dismisses the case, and he orders a disruptive Riley sent to a sanitarium. The bailiffs taze when she tries to attack the three suspects.  Afterward, as the paramedics are loading a distraught Riley into an ambulance, she surprises not only them, but also Detective Carmichael and clobbers him with an oxygen bottle.  This gives Riley ample time to escape and vanish into thin air.  About five years later, Riley returns to L.A. with lethal skills which enable her to give the cartel a taste of its own medicine.  Now, not only must Diego contend with a rabid lone wolf assassin, but also his own cartel bosses are scrutinizing him with suspicions eyes because he cannot account for some missing narcotics.

Efficiently helmed from start to finish, director Pierre Morel never lets the momentum slacken in “Peppermint.”  Five years later, our heroine returns, she carries out several strikes against the cartel that leaves them hurting.  Soon enough, the FBI launches an investigation, too.  Now, Riley has to deal with not only the cartel, but also corrupt as well as honest lawmen.  Morel orchestrates the noisy shootouts and the close-quarters combat encounters with high-octane explosions and white-knuckled suspense.  Occasionally, our heroine behaves like a rank amateur, such as when she steals assault weapons from a gun dealer’s inventory without wearing anything to conceal her identity.  Under fire, however, she performs like a trooper, blasting away with extreme prejudice at the murderous brutes that obliterated her family.  Happily, Morel doesn’t take a chronological approach to the storytelling.  He opens up the movie with our tempered-like-steel heroine killing a cartel gunmen in his car at a secluded rendezvous.  While the violence is largely standard-issue, and the filmmakers shun sexual violence in any form, “Peppermint” doesn’t always hold up under the burden of its implausibility.

 

 


Van Roberts

vtroberts@muw.edu

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