Film Review – Peppermint
Peppermint (2018) wastes too much time focusing on undeveloped characters and not enough time on what we came see: Jennifer Garner kicking ass and taking names. It’s billed as a revenge/action picture, and in certain cases it is. But writer Chad St. John and director Pierre Morel sinks the narrative with storylines that go nowhere, characterizations that are generalized at best, and a severe lack of exciting action scenes that the whole experience seems to drag by at a snail’s pace. The idea behind the story has potential, but the execution never takes advantage of it.
That’s not due to the lead performance, though. Garner digs in and gives a committed turn as Riley North, a mild mannered wife and mother whose whole life comes crashing down when her family is killed in a drug cartel drive by shooting. When a corrupt justice system lets the criminals go free, Riley takes it upon herself to inflict her own version of violent justice. Garner goes full tilt as Riley, pushing the envelope both emotionally and physically. When she’s tasked to perform a dramatic scene, she goes as big and as broad as possible. When she has to pull off physical feats such as getting into a brawl or shootout, she handles herself like a trained mercenary. Garner shines in the physical aspect of the part. In one action scene, she hops over a counter to take out a bad guy and she performs it with relative ease. It makes me wonder why filmmakers haven’t incorporated her more into action roles (other than Alias or Daredevil); she’s more than capable of the job.
But her efforts are betrayed by a narrative that falls far beneath her. The writing stumbles over itself, explaining how Riley goes from a suburban mom to brutal killer by skipping over the details. Riley disappears for five years to prepare herself to become a vigilante. All we learn about this time span is that she went overseas to train, and we’re given a brief YouTube video of her participating in MMA fights. These bits are skimmed over so quickly that it’s nearly an afterthought. If that weren’t enough, the worst aspect of her development is the revelation that she has anti-psychotic and anti-depression medication. This is a terrible character detail because it removes accountability from her. Instead of being a woman who was wronged, takes matters into her own hands, and deals with the consequences of those decisions, the writing and directing basically removes that from her, saying that everything she does could very well be the result of a mental instability. In the other words: don’t get upset over what she does, she’s crazy!
All of that could have been forgiven if the action in Peppermint was satisfying. Instead, the action is surprisingly minimal. There are only a few action scenes in total, and none of them leave a lasting impression. To make up for this, Morel and St. John stuff the plot with supporting characters that have nothing interesting to say or do. John Ortiz and John Gallagher Jr. appear as detectives assigned to track Riley down, although their contribution usually involves Ortiz’s character telling Gallagher to be careful before following a lead, with Gallagher ignoring that advice anyway. The members of the cartel are a mix of Mexican and Hispanic stereotypes, with Juan Pablo Raba playing the central antagonist as nothing more than a cold-blooded villain. The majority of the film has these two groups – cops and criminals – both trying to deal with Riley’s increasing path of destruction.
Slow motion is the enemy of good action. When done poorly, slow motion takes us out of the moment, calling attention to the filmmaker’s presence. We want to be in the midst of the mayhem as though we are a part of it in real time. Whenever slow motion occurs we’re stripped of that immersive feeling. Nearly all of the action scenes incorporate slow motion, preventing momentum from ever building up. In a sequence when Riley infiltrates a warehouse full of bad guys, Morel has the camera constantly slow time down, draining the scene from any excitement. When Riley jumps from one platform down to another, the slow motion makes the shot look anything but lifelike.
The editing shifts into a nauseating, vomit-inducing jumble of light and sound during Riley’s frequent flashbacks. Whenever Riley thinks back on the loved ones she’s lost, the editing bombards us with rapid fire images. This happens a lot. It’s as though Morel and his team want to hammer in Riley’s motivation just to make sure we don’t forget. Yes, we get that Riley has been pushed over the edge because of what happened to her family. Yes, we understand that they are constantly on her mind and that the thought of them causes her to act irrationally. The fact that we have to see her thoughts over and over again almost feels like the film is being condescending to us as viewers – as though we’re not smart enough to get it.
Jennifer Garner is the saving grace of Peppermint, but even her performance isn’t enough to prevent this from being a “here today, gone tomorrow” kind of film. Revenge stories have been around since the dawn of storytelling. What does this film have to offer outside of others in the same genre? The answer is: nothing.