There’s something deeply cathartic about a well-made revenge flick. Watching the mayhem unfold on screen while the hero pursues victory like an unrelenting Valkyrie, dispatching adversaries with dogged determination until they all lie broken and defeated at their feet. These are the Kill Bill stories, the John Wick stories, the Django Unchained and Man on Fire stories. The newest film to join the ranks is the Pierre Morel-directed (Taken, District B13) Peppermint wherein a woman besieged by injustice cuts down the very people who denied her family peace.
Riley North (Jennifer Garner) and husband Chris (Jeff Hephner) live a quiet life in Los Angeles trying to make ends meet and provide a good life for their daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming). Despite being a close-knit family, Chris keeps the struggles of his business a secret from Riley and toys with the notion of helping a friend rob a local gangster, Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), to improve his fortunes. Though Chris backs out before the theft, Diego sends his enforcers to kill the entire family as a message to anyone who would dare threaten his turf. Riley, albeit barely, survives. Despite working with the police diligently, the case is thrown out. Distraught, Riley disappears. Nearly five years to the day, Riley returns and the bodies begin to drop.
Before the screening of Peppermint, the trailer created less-than-ideal optics: Caucasian suburban mom becomes a killer of dark skinned individuals. Thankfully the script by Chad St. John (The Punisher: Dirty Laundry (short)) reveals itself to be far more, as well as less, than that. Instead of just an indiscriminant murderer, Garner’s Riley is possessed of a singular focus: to shuffle off the mortal coil of those that destroyed her family. Yes, this does mean the crime boss Garcia (played with some subtle depth by Raba) and his men are prime targets, but so are the members of the justice system in his pocket. In essence, while Peppermint is the revenge-centered flick the trailers suggest, it leans more toward 2007’s Death Sentence than any iteration of Death Wish.
Building off of that, the script plainly and easily establishes Riley’s transformation into skilled assassin, though it’s done completely off-screen. While there’s an element of mystery that stories thrive in, keeping her journey of self-improvement largely a secret both fascinates and frustrates. Balancing exposition and propulsive action, Riley is presented as an enigma, if not a laser-focused one, and the audience is expected to just run with it. One thing is for certain: Riley loathes injustice, loves children, and knows exactly where and how to make you hurt. Skipping her personal journey, Peppermint ensures the audiences know what kind of badass Riley’s become straight from the jump as they observe her self-treat a knife wound with alcohol, staples, and duct tape. This is only the end of the opening scene, but it lets you know exactly the kind of ride you’re in for: messy, yet efficient.
Though the core story is a touch familiar/predictable, Morel’s handling of the action sequences is consistently brilliant in staging. As mentioned before, without witnessing her training, the audience requires proof of Riley’s present expertise to buy into her vigilante personae and Morel gives us scene after scene that does so in spades. Not only is Garner not even a little rusty from all the delightful family dramas she’s focused on the last few years, she undeniably entertaining and believable in the role. In one instance, she carefully clears room after room before barricading herself in a hallway where she has the strongest position against her attackers. Later, in a fierce showdown against larger armed forces, she utilizes a SUV as a rolling blockade, demonstrating her tactical training and precision. Given Morel’s proficiency with action, these sequences do more than serve as gun-blasting entertainment, but as a way to push the story forward.
Considering Morel’s experience with action-oriented stories, it’s not a surprise that each set piece is surprisingly more impressive than the last. However, quite frequently, the more intense hand-to-hand physical scenes are treated with a less deft touch, making the scenes harder to follow as the camera shakes and shifts in a poor attempt to suggest momentum. The stunts are impressive enough and some involve moments that are bound to elicit audible sounds from the audience out of instinct, yet the frequency with which the poor camera focus detracts can’t be ignored. Another aspect that decreases the experience of Peppermint is the use of an extended flashback after a fantastic set-up in the opening moments. Certainly, the audience needs to know what events took place that instigated this life change for Riley. However, a more piecemeal approach would have enabled the action to keep moving while also providing background on Riley. Instead, the audience is treated to a lengthy set-up sequence and is then spoon-fed information via exposition. Gratefully, everything else works so well that these issues are largely forgivable.
At the end of the day, audiences are going to be entertained by Peppermint as it hits all the pleasure centers of any good revenge flick: heartbreaking circumstance, a believable hero, and vicious takedown after vicious takedown. Are all of the performances perfect? No. Is it somewhat emotionally manipulative instead of earnest? Yep. But despite all that, when the credits roll, Peppermint contains some solid, easily rewatchable action. Some might even argue that Peppermint could be the start of a franchise for Garner who hasn’t worked in the action genre in this capacity for years (worked for Liam Neeson with Taken). Gratefully St. John’s script comes to a natural conclusion that both feels right for the character and for the audience. To prolong it, would only risk cheapening an entertaining ride. Here’s hoping Garner doesn’t wait so long to kick some butt again.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.