PEPPERMINT: Winged Feature

Earlier this year, while reviewing LOVE, SIMON, I bemoaned that Jennifer Garner had been prematurely reduced to nice mom roles after being so obviously an excellent physical actor for both comedy and action. Apparently, the gods of entertainment read that review and delivered unto me PEPPERMINT.

However, will PEPPERMINT end up being a dream come true situation or a monkey’s paw scenario?

PEPPERMINT: Bad Ass with Bulletproof Vest
Spotlight’s out, guns out for Jennifer Garner in all the scenes in PEPPERMINT (Courtesy of STX Entertainment)

The Idea Behind PEPPERMINT

On a base level, PEPPERMINT is a pretty standard DEATH WISH/PUNISHER/”don’t touch my stuff”-style film with Garner in the Frank Castle mode.

Riley North (Garner) is a married working mom in a predominantly wealthy suburb. She and her husband, Chris (Jeff Hephner), are struggling to make ends meet on the poor side of town to keep their daughter (Cailey Fleming) in the best possible circumstances. She is trying to get more hours at her bank teller job but only seems to be offered them when they interfere with her ability to be the mom she wants to be. Chris, on the other hand, briefly flirts with a quick payout by being a getaway driver for Just. One. Job.

While he quickly comes to his senses and refuses, the mere contemplation of it is too much of an affront for the local drug kingpin (Juan Pablo Raba). As the North family celebrates Carly‘s birthday at a local Winter Fair, our drug lord dispatches his henchmen for a drive-by hit. Bullets strike father, mother, and child. Only Riley survives.

After awakening from a brief coma, Riley successfully identifies the gunmen and driver. However, a combination of institutional corruption and stigmatizing innuendo regarding the trauma meds she has been prescribed results in the case being dismissed.

Five years later, people connected to the killings are turning up brutally executed. After years of training, traveling the globe, and building an arsenal, Riley has returned to wreak her vengeance.

Why The PREDATOR Worked — Schwarzenegger VS. Space Alien

Writing the PEPPERMINT Screenplay

The script from Chad St. John is, to be honest, not great.

On the structure side of things, the film feels lumpy and badly laid out. After a slowly built start, the final two-thirds often feel rushed, pushing past what would’ve seemed like strong opportunities for character and action moments in favor of longer scenes of mowing down anonymous henchmen. For instance, arguably the most direct antagonist of the first third of the movie died off camera. Moreover, we only know that because of one line from a supporting character. Meanwhile, an encounter between Riley and a brand new character gets an extensive gun battle.

Similarly, an important moment in Riley’s evolution gets a passing mention but is never depicted on-screen. And not just to the audience, either. Somehow, the police were totally unaware of the incident in question as well. Given how important the action is to Riley’s transition to vigilante, it is wild from a storytelling perspective that we never see it. It is also wild from an in-world perspective that the cops would be caught off guard by the news.

Dialogue-wise, the screenplay will not set anyone’s heart aflutter. There are some real groaners, mostly put in the mouths of Detectives Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) and Beltran (John Ortiz). The clichés pile up pretty quickly, as well.

The script is not totally without charm, though. There are some dry, darkly humorous tossed off lines. However, that might be owed more to…

PEPPERMINT: On the Walkie
Jennifer Garner talks trash via walkie talkie in a scene from PEPPERMINT. (Courtesy of STX Entertainment)

Casting the Lead of PEPPERMINT

…the one and only Jennifer Garner. If you’ll forgive me for a moment, it is so excellent to see her breaking bones and shooting stuff up again. And those arms!

To be a little more professional, she remains a gifted physical actor who sells each fight sequence. I haven’t seen her in her breakthrough performance on ALIAS in awhile, but it does not feel like she has lost a step from there to now.

Her physical acting beyond the action sequences is strong, as well. Beyond her being shredded like lettuce, she sells her journey from average mother to murderous vigilante through her posture and facial expressions. She literally holds her face differently after her disappearance. That is not an easy change to make and maintain.

Garner’s line reading is generally good, as well. Her best moments are giving the tough-lady dialogue a dryly humorous spin that elevates the clichés. Her only bum notes are during a courtroom scene where she devolves into rage and hysterics. The whole thing just escalates so quickly that Garner cannot sell her devolution.

Short Take Film Reviews: BLACKkKLANSMAN, ALPHA, and More!

Casting the Rest of the PEPPERMINT Call Sheet

I like John Gallagher Jr. and John Ortiz in general and they are both fine here. The roles, however, feel criminally (haHA!) underwritten. Gallagher’s Carmichael starts with a personality but loses it after the five-year time jump. Ortiz has none until the last eight to ten minutes of the movie.

Juan Pablo Raba lacks the kind of fearful menace the role needs. I never buy him as a worthy foe for Garner’s spirit of vengeance and the movie suffers by making him the proverbial final boss.

Michael Moseley as the cartel’s attorney is strong in his one-on-one scene with Garner where he plays weaponized sympathy well. His later court scene feels sadly rote.

Everyone else never rises above martyr, cannon fodder, or background artist.

PEPPERMINT: Protecting the alcohol
Jenny (Garner)’s got a gun in PEPPERMINT (Courtesy of STX Entertainment)

Filming

One thing PEPPERMINT certainly has going for it is that director Pierre Morel knows how to film violence. Unlike, say, last month’s MILE 22, the angles, distance, and editing make the fight scenes easier to see and appreciate. The choreography is not spectacular but it is decent and filming it properly sells it well.

The movie finds a strong canvas in Garner, as well. The camera does not sexualize her — save a weirdly cleavage-tastic mural of her. Instead, it frames and studies her like it would a male action star. The camera lingers over scars and muscles. Grimaces and rageful roars centered in closeup.

Despite the erratic pacing, the sense of visual continuity is strong. We may not know why scenes that would seem important end up not on screen, but we are never confused how we got from point A to point B.

How We Can Learn Constructive Criticism From GHOSTBUSTERS

That’s A Wrap!

For two specific scenes, it feels like PEPPERMINT is about to become a deeply dark, mean-spirited comedy about Riley taking down the rich snob moms in her town. Alas, that does not occur, but I think I’d be way more interested in that.

Instead, we end up with a kind of DEATH WISH retread. At times it feels like a right-wing dream with Garner mowing down the largely Mexican members of the cartel. At others, it seems more anti-patriarchy and anti-mediocre white guys, as white dudes in positions of power are the jerks who get it worst. And then there is a scene that implies all you need to cure your alcoholism is Garner threatening you at gunpoint.

To put it in modern parlance, the movie has problematic elements.

That said, it is hard to tell a revenge story without encountering problematic elements. Still, you don’t need to make your villains Mexicans during a period when our president is constantly demonizing our southern neighbors. Just saying.

So, in the end, Garner is good and the action is strong. The rest of the movie, though, is too generic to justify its existence. However, I’m open to Riley North returning in a far smarter exploration of urban vigilantism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *