A kick-ass Jennifer Garner can’t save Peppermint from becoming a muddled mess

Jennifer Garner is the sole shining light in an action movie that blandly goes through the motions, writes critic Sarah Ward.

Vigilante, folk hero or common criminal? When someone has been let down by the justice system and takes the law into their own violent hands, which label applies? In one of Peppermint’s many uses of news-style footage, a TV anchor applies this question to the film’s protagonist; however this gleeful action flick has already told audiences the answer. The movie might start with Riley North (Jennifer Garner) telling her ten-year-old daughter (Cailey Fleming) that beating up bullies doesn’t pay, but director Pierre Morel (The Gunman) and writer Chad St. John (London Has Fallen) quickly change their mind. If the world turns against a middle-class white woman who’s just lost her family to Latino drug dealers, then anything is acceptable – including a vast amount of bullet holes and bloodshed.

Introduced dispatching with a ne’er-do-well swiftly and decisively, then patching up her own wounds with a staple gun and duct tape, Riley thinks that the world is against her for understandable reasons. Once a happy wife, mother and bank worker – albeit one struggling, along with her garage owner husband (Jeff Hephner), to make ends meet – she watched her loved ones gunned down. Then, injured, in mourning but still able to identify the assailants, she saw the culprits escape trial thanks to bought-off lawyers and a corrupt judge. And, when she protested, she was sent to a mental health facility. On the run for five years since, the still grief-stricken woman returns to Los Angeles as a fugitive. But Riley has taught herself a very particular set of skills and she’s determined to use them, as detectives Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) and Beltran (John Ortiz) realise when bodies start piling up.

Fashioning an action thriller around a quest for revenge is hardly new or notable, as Morel’s own biggest hit, Taken, clearly shows. Nor is creating vengeance-fuelled fare that’s predicated upon a straightforward good-versus-evil battle. What troubles Peppermint isn’t the film’s adherence to a Death Wish-esque formula, but the attempt to pretend that it delves into complicated waters. Alas, there’s nothing thorny in the idea that justice doesn’t always prevail, there’s nothing revelatory in recognising that the law can be subverted, and – and sadly – there’s little that’s unique in depicting a woman dismissed for speaking out. There’s certainly zero complexity in a protagonist who guns down seemingly every Latinx with a connection to her adversary, or in the feature’s one-note portrayal of its villains as heavily tattooed, weapon-wielding, narcotics-slinging stereotypes.

Peppermint might try to feign otherwise, but St. John’s screenplay simply preys upon easy clichés in a failed effort to give substance to its by-the-numbers storyline. More than that, it preys upon a problematic way of thinking that’s become increasingly evident off-screen: that the odds are stacked against ordinary folks, who are ignored by the powers-that-be and threatened by immigrants destroying their way of life. The film may not claim to offer an accurate snapshot of modern-day America, and yet, in its rhetoric, it taps into more than the fictional news headlines it frequently splashes across the screen. Indeed, when Peppermint highlights tweets praising Riley as a hero for her killing spree, they don’t seem all that removed from reality.

Crucial to the best avenging angel tales is an embrace of the heightened, exaggerated nature of the general scenario. When John Wick’s titular assassin seeks retribution for his dog, for example, the anger and loss he feels prove relatable, but the world he lives in definitely doesn’t. There’s nothing realistic about his actions or life, which the Keanu Reeves-starring surprise hit leans into with its slick, frenetic action choreography and near-infallible hero. Visually, Peppermint endeavours to ape the same style across its fight scenes, albeit with Morel’s misguided and distracting penchant for jerkiness. Overall, however, the film wants to have its overblown cake and throw around some incendiary thematic weight, and suffers for the latter.

Let down by the messy, muddled movie is star Garner, who’s the only shining light in a feature that remains as dull as its grey-heavy colour scheme. Returning to the action-packed realm that served her so well in spy TV series Alias, she does what nothing else in Peppermint can manage: summons genuine interest. When the actor is letting fists and bullets fly, every blow hits hard. When she’s conveying Riley’s trauma – even when she’s uttering rote dialogue to do so – she gives more flesh to the character than the screenplay deserves. But a kick-ass lead can’t salvage a film that blandly goes through the motions, pretends that its routine mayhem means something and packages it up with a troubling perspective.