A film review by Craig J. Koban September 21, 2018


2018, R, 102 mins.


Jennifer Garner as Riley North  /  John Gallagher Jr. as Detective Stan Carmichael  /  John Ortiz as Detective Moises Beltran  /  Juan Pablo Raba as Diego Garcia  /  Annie Ilonzeh as FBI Agent Lisa Inman  /  

Directed by Pierre Morel  /  Written by Chad St. John



The ridiculously titled PEPPERMINT - taken from, I kid you not, an ice cream flavor - is the fourth revenge porn action thriller that I've seen in 2018 alone, proving that the lurid genre is all the current rage.  

It's also the second one I've seen featuring a female protagonist, coming on the heels of Coralie Fargeat's evocatively stylish REVENGE.  The other two films were the Eli Roth's loathsomely wrongheaded DEATH WISH remake and Antoine Fuqua's substantially better THE EQUALIZER 2.  This begs one question: Where does PEPPERMINT (my lord...that title!) fall in this spectrum?  It's not as reprehensible as DEATH WISH, nor as aesthetically brilliant as REVENGE or as impactful as THE EQUALIZER 2, but it's driven by a ferociously committed performance by Jennifer Garner, whose work here will have many fans pining for her action heroine glory days on TV's ALIAS nearly two decades ago. 

It should also be mentioned that PEPPERMINT (my lord...that title...okay...I'll stop) is directed by Pierre Morel, the French filmmaker behind DISTRICT B13 and perhaps more famously TAKEN, a ­­man on the hunt revenge thriller in its own right that famously made the middle aged dramatic actor Liam Neeson a kick ass action star.  TAKEN worked preposterously well despite its premise, seeing as its gravel voiced actor was such an against the grain casting choice that ultimately paid off handsomely and carried the B-grade exploitation film on his very broad shoulders.  PEPPERMINT (my lord...that ti...opps...a promise is a promise) doesn't quite match TAKEN on a level of genre freshness, and it's also more ludicrously plotted and will inspire many an incredulous eye roll in viewers.  But there's no denying that Garner - who's pushing 50 - matches Neeson on a level of being wholly credible as an gory instrument of blunt force comeuppance.  Regrettably, though, beyond the actress' dedication to her role here there's simply not a lot of meat left on PEPPERMINT's (hee-hee) bones that would warrant theatrical consumption. 



And speaking of bones, the plot here is a bare bones and simplistic as it gets.  Garner (still radiantly beautiful, BTW, for her age) plays a middle class suburban mother named Riley, who struggles to make ends meet with her caring husband Chris (Jeff Hephner), but both of them nevertheless work together as a loving parent team, despite their financial hardships, to provide for their daughter, Carly (Cailey Fleming).  The family is so down on their luck that Chris, in secret, almost joins a plan of his co-worker's to rob one of the city's biggest drug dealers, Diego (Juan Pablo Raba), which doesn't seem like a good idea at all.  Soundly thinking about his future, Chris declines his pal's offer for an easy pay day that would have proven fatal for him, but Diego still finds out about Chris' initial willingness to partake in the scheme to rob him, which leads to a bunch of his goons ruthlessly murdering him and Carley right before Riley's eyes in a drive-by shooting at a local amusement park.   

At the time of her killing Carly was eating...wait for it...peppermint ice cream. 

The trial for the hoodlums proves to be a cruel joke, seeing as the judge appears to have been on Diego's payroll, leading to them getting off.  Enraged, Riley flees the city, never to be heard from again...that is until five years flash by and she has returned (after being off the grid and bouncing from country to country during that time) on the anniversary of her daughter's death with a brutal plan for vengeance that involves eradicating Diego's gang one member at a time until she ultimately hooks up with him.  Of course, Riley - it's assumed - spent a majority of those years training her mind, body, and spirit to be lethal assassin in the Bryan Mills mould, and her murdering escapades catch the attention of detectives Stan (John Gallagher Jr.) and Moises (John Ortiz) and an FBI agent (Annie Ilonzeh), who all work in tandem to stop Diego's empire and Riley's vigilante ways.  Concurrent to this is the fact that Riley has become a sort of folk hero on social media, whose users have all discovered that this former bank teller mom has now become a justice dispensing badass. 

I think that, deep down, Garner realizes that she's in low grade trash here, but she still thanklessly invests in her character and definitely sells her startling transition from maternal figure to female Punisher wanna-be.  One thing that works in PEPPERMINT's favor is that she never plays Riley broadly, but instead imbues her character with relatable and authentically dramatic strokes, which allows for audience sympathy and buy-in.  Now, there is definitely something to be said about Garner being too good for this material and how all of it would have been cheaply disposable and forgettable without her participation.  Without question, I would love to see her utilize her unquestionable talents and endless charm in better action thrillers than this, but she gives it her all in PEPPERMINT and, rather commendably, never phones in her performance at all. 

I only wished that the other characters surrounding her in the film were not of the lazily concocted cookie cutter type.  More often than not, the aforementioned cops and FBI agent are nothing but a series of regurgitated character troupes that never distinguish themselves as memorable in the slightest (this is not aided by the lumberingly clunky expositional dialogue that they have to forcibly deliver at times, often to groan inducing effect).  And PEPPERMINT lacks a great villain to make Riley's one woman army mission feel all the more tension riddled.  Raba's drug czar feels like he was abducted from countless other action thrillers and just unceremoniously dumped in here for good measure.  He's an intimidating presence, but his villain isn't creepy or frightening enough to feel like a credible threat to Riley.  Plus, once it's established that she's an unstoppable force you just know that he's an unavoidable dead man. 

The action scenes have a blood spattered and brutal efficiency (rather thankfully, PEPPERMINT is not a neutered down PG-13 and more than earns it R-rating on a level of Riley's savage attacks on her unsuspecting prey).  Unfortunately, Morrell peppers his film with too many stylistically distracting gimmicks, like employing rapid jump cuts, weird dissolves, and out of focus transitions that look like an Instagram filter user's wet dream (a lean, mean, and less is more aesthetic approach would have worked wonders here).  Hurting the film further is its achingly predictable scripting that thinks its key scenes pay off when they can be seen from a million miles away.  You just know, for example, that an early altercation that Riley has with a snobby and rich helicopter mom in a parking lot during her pre-vigilante days (telling off Riley and Carly for not being Girl Scout material) will unavoidably lead to a latter scene with Riley breaking into her home while on her bloodlust for Diego to assault her.  And don't get me started on a would-be shocking plot twist involving one character being revealed as an inside man in Diego's gang; this is screenwriting at its most perfunctory. 

The sheer lapses in logic deal other crushing blows to PEPPERMINT, like how Riley is able to leave the country for five years undetected and then return back undetected, not to mention that she becomes a limitlessly dexterous and accomplished fighter and weapons user during that time (we never see any semblance of even a training montage in the film).  Riley is also simply, well, too good at everything, whether it be with multiple firearms, knives, explosives, and such.  There's nothing this woman can't do.  Then there's the howl inducing subplot of how the residents of L.A.'s Skid Row covet Riley like a super hero and even paint dedication murals of her on their buildings.  You'd think that the clandestine and flying under the radar Riley wound not want any extra attention drawn to her, especially with her mug on 50 foot tall graffiti paintings.  She does, however, live and work out of a van to conceal her identity, so there's that.   

Readers might be wondering how I could give a film like DEATH WISH a zero star rating and not PEPPERMINT, seeing as both have white heroes that mow and gun down countless minority gangbanger stereotypes for the purposes of entertainment (the racial insensitivity on display in both films is hard to ignore).  Roth's film was offensively trying to have its cake and eat it too in wanting to be a commentary on societal gun violence and vigilante justice while also being sensationalistic pulpy in showing Bruce Willis violently kill a lot of people with guns.  PEPPERMINT doesn't have the same sort of foolishly contradictory motives, not to mention that at least Garner isn't anywhere near as sluggishly one-note and stiff in her performance as Willis was with his.  Plus, Morel's film catalogue is littered with pure genre junk food without much ambition to be anything beyond that.  Still, I have a hard time recommending PEPPERMINT as being worthy of a $12 movie ticket, even with Garner confidently leading the charge and being worthy of admission.  

The movie did make me want to run out to an ice cream pallor after my screening, though, so that's a moral victory. 

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