“Alias,” the J.J. Abrams spy drama that made Jennifer Garner a household name, went off the air more than a decade ago. In that time, Garner has played a 13-year-old trapped in an adult body (“13 Going on 30”), an AIDS doctor (“Dallas Buyers Club”), and the mom of the first gay teenager to get major studio treatment (“Love, Simon”). Still, there is nothing Garner does better than kick serious ass. The new action flick “Peppermint” is a rare return to form for Garner, who doles out her vigilante justice with effortless charm. Unfortunately, that’s about the only reason to see “Peppermint.”
An oddly sweet title for a movie that drops more bodies than “The Wire,” “Peppermint” follows grieving mother Riley North (Garner) on an epic killing spree to avenge the unexpected deaths of her husband and daughter. Told in a lengthy flashback five years prior to the main action, Riley’s husband was approached to drive getaway for a supposedly easy job; instead, it was a robbery of the most dangerous gangster in all of Los Angeles, Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). He turns down the offer, but not before Garcia catches wind of the plan and orders him killed. While leaving a Christmas fair, peppermint ice cream in hand, Riley’s husband and young daughter are senselessly gunned down.
She awakes to a young detective, Stan Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.), asking her to identify the gunmen, which she does without hesitation. Riley and Stan were both warned about going after Garcia, and apparently the judge was, too, because he lets the suspects walk. After being forcibly removed from the courtroom and ordered to a psych ward, Riley cuts and runs out of the ambulance and is never heard from again.
Courtesy of STXfilms
That is, until three bodies are found strung upside down from the fair’s ferris wheel five years later. Once they realize it is the anniversary of the North murders, Stan and his partner (John Ortiz) begin to suspect Riley. We find the newer, rougher Riley living out of a van on Skid Row, where she spends her time stapling her own flesh wounds and ticking names off her list. Once the FBI gets involved, it becomes clear that Riley North is no longer the hard-working mother she once was, but a hard-working killer out for Garcia’s blood.
Written by Chad St. John (“London Has Fallen”) and directed by Pierre Morel (“Taken”), “Peppermint” certainly doesn’t reach the comic heights of 2014’s “John Wick,” nor the espionage reveals of 2017’s “Atomic Blonde.” Riley’s justice is hard and fast, and she shows as little mercy as she does finesse. Whereas Sydney Bristow exemplified style and grace under pressure, like a female James Bond, Riley North is the kind of action lead who brings a tank to a sword fight.
While it is refreshing to see a woman inhabit such a stereotypically macho movie role, the ingenuity of “Peppermint” stops there. The action scenes are shot with little creativity, and it’s hard to tell which kill in any given sequence is supposed to be the crescendo. Garner is at her best with hand-to-hand combat, showing off moves honed during her “Alias” days, but Morel prefers gun fights and crude explosions. To his credit, however, there are no gratuitous nude shots of Garner, nor does the camera linger on her body. (He prefers to ogle bodies of the dead variety.)
Gallagher Jr. makes a good foil to Garner’s Riley, and Ortiz and Raba are both well cast. Even with Ortiz as a good guy, it is painful to see yet another movie with a villainous Latino gang, face tattoos and all, especially one being systematically hunted by a white woman. It’s just one more sign that “Peppermint” — like its revenge-seeking heroine — is way too stuck in the past.
STX Entertainment will release “Peppermint” in theaters nationwide on September 7.