Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Jennifer Garner wants to be taken seriously with her own version of TAKEN – but we’re going to get taken in the process.
Director Pierre Morel’s PEPPERMINT is not only fear-mongering rhetoric at its laziest (a la the latest DEATH WISH), but also a poorly-constructed action film that does no one any favors. Representation (which is reprehensible anti-Latino propaganda when the filmmakers could have easily gone with an unspecified gang instead) is the least of the Pandora’s Box of problems. There’s so much more.
Caring mother Riley North’s (Jennifer Garner) biggest worry used to be making sure her daughter sold enough movie-fake Girl Scout cookies. But those cookie concerns crumble when Mexican drug lord Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba) orders a hit, which not only robs Riley of her blue-collar husband Chris (Jeff Hephner), but also her cute-as-a-button daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming). Making things worse, a corrupt judge lets the three gunmen walk during trial. Justice is now in Riley’s hands.
The picture annoyingly begins in “media res” in what appears to be a sheer act of desperation, though the story would be just as impactful if told linearly. Worse, it doesn’t stick with the heroine’s perspective, diverting to a tangential story about a mysterious mole in Detective Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) and Detective Beltran’s (John Ortiz) unit. When it comes to the cops’ pursuit of Riley, it wishes it had the pathos of THE FUGITIVE. There could’ve been a meaty antagonistic dynamic between Riley and FBI agent Lisa Inman (Annie Ilonzeh), but alas. It also commits the unfathomable crime of omitting all the cool stuff we’d want to see Riley doing during her training experience living off the grid. The cops talk about it instead, and it’s a joyless slog. Believability is stretched to the breaking point and beyond – yet the film doesn’t achieve the status of “so bad, it’s good.”
Riley’s Getting-The-Upper-Hand-On-The-Underlings sequence set in the piñata factory isn’t as gratifying as it should be. And it’s just the gateway to how poorly executed Morel’s action sequences are. Fragments of the bright piñatas exploding everywhere, along with the heads of the gang members guarding the place, should have presented an interesting juxtaposition between violence and frivolity. It doesn’t. Valuing grim dark cinematography and an aggressive heavy metal soundtrack, the scene lacks any sort of crispness or gravitas. It should be gripping to see her sweep the aisles in an unfamiliar place, picking off her ruthless pursuers one by one. But it’s realized incoherently in a flat, lifeless, paint-by-numbers manner, relying on shaky-cam medium shots that hide the action choreography. Choppy editing does even more damage to the stunt performers’ artistic integrity. We live in a post-JOHN WICK world. All filmmakers need to do better. Yet here we are.
Narratively, Chad St. John’s script fails our heroine even further, as it won’t let her commit to the darkest, ballsiest moves anyone in her position would make – mainly so she can have her inevitable third act redemption. Riley is a now-childless widow, hell-bent on revenge – yet during a pivotal moment she fails to pull the trigger on the very person that caused her years-long anguish. She maddeningly hesitates, solely to give the movie a third act – one that feels longer than necessary. That’s where a ho-hum double-cross comes to light.
Not only is the pacing terrible, there’s extra time spent with useless tertiary characters like the precocious homeless tikes and Garcia’s boss. It also doesn’t say anything new or unique about vigilantism (like JOHN WICK, THE PUNISHER, or either version of DEATH WISH). It’s just not enough to have a woman channeling vengeance. We’ve seen MS. 45, KILL BILL, and LADY SNOWBLOOD. The placement of semi-satisfying elements could’ve used a third pass during the script stages. We all know tightwad, passive-aggressive Peg (Pell James) is cruisin’ for a brusin’. However, it’s placed where it lacks the most power for its literal punch – not in the finale, but as a forgettable transition earlier.
The filmmakers interestingly thread the needle on a few occasions, weaving subversive sentiments about societal sexism into the fabric – but fail to pull it all together. As is, Riley is only confronted by “the patriarchy” when a cop dismissively labels her a “soccer mom,” and when a random passerby exits his vehicle to assumingly help a damsel in distress only to be carjacked by her. While it’s refreshing change of pace to see a reverse take on refrigerating characters, where it’s the male perishing instead of the usual female to give the significant other an arc, there’s no added insight gained.
Lacking the sweet comfort and refreshing zing of the ice cream flavor from which this film gets its name, PEPPERMINT leaves a foul taste rather than a refreshingly clean one.
PEPPERMINT opens on September 7.