How to revive a movie star’s flagging career? Take up guns, obviously. Following in the time-honored tradition of “Taken,” “John Wick,” “Atomic Blonde” and “Death Wish,” Jennifer Garner arms up in the vigilante-mom action-thriller “Peppermint.” (And we use the terminology “arms up” both literally and figuratively. Garner’s guns come in both the semiautomatic and bicep variety. She sports some seriously sinewy shoulders.)
While it’s fun to watch Garner return to her action roots, the brute force haymaker that is “Peppermint” is a far cry from the sophisticated thrills of “Alias.” Directed by “Taken” helmer Pierre Morel and written by “London Has Fallen” screenwriter Chad St. John, what distinguishes this from every other vigilante shoot-em-up is that our hero is a mom.
Motherhood defines who she is and what she does. That is both her strength and her weakness, and often, it’s somewhat limiting. But just because the vigilante happens to be a stereotypical PTA mom, Garner doesn’t make the wanton displays of unchecked violence any less icky.
Garner is Riley North, a lower-middle class Los Angeles bank teller with a family struggling to make ends meet. With the household needing a little extra cash, her husband, Chris (Jeff Hephner), a mechanic, gets lured into driving the getaway vehicle in the robbery of a powerful drug dealer, Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), which earns a hit on his name. Chris and their daughter, Carly (Cailey Fleming), are gunned down in front of Riley, at a Christmas carnival no less.
When the thugs walk, thanks to a corrupt judge and lawyer, Riley disappears, only to pop up five years later. Soon those who wronged her start turning up dead.
Riley takes up the tools of the oppressors to enact her revenge, methodically stalking everyone who denied her justice while working her way up to Garcia. She brutalizes men for their behavior, and there is a frisson of feminine rage that electrifies the otherwise dour proceedings. But is it empowering? Hardly. While there might be some small satisfaction in watching her torture the crooked judge, mostly we’re left to wonder why she would stoop to the thugs’ level and what sort of a message that behavior is trying to send to viewers.
The movie’s trailer garnered rightful criticism for what looked to be distressingly problematic representations of Latinos as drug-dealing, face-tatted thugs stalking white families. Alas, that impression turned out to be correct. The story does take place in a realistically diverse Los Angeles, but it relies on tired, xenophobic gang stereotypes as fodder for Riley’s murderous maternal rage.
She eradicates crime on Skid Row while defending homeless kids and threatens an alcoholic man into cleaning up his act for his son. But that reverence for human life is not extended to any of the men she shoots at point blank range with large-caliber weapons. In that regard, “Peppermint” feels like a relic from another era.
A relic, not a classic. There’s a big difference.