Revenge, much like ice cream, is a dish best served cold. Maybe that’s why Jennifer Garner’s long-awaited return to action in “Peppermint” is lacking serious heat.
Twelve years after Garner closed the door on a closet full of wigs, parental trust issues and her reign as TV’s resident badass on ABC’s “Alias,” she’s reclaiming the title, but this time on the big screen.
It’s clear why, at least on paper, “Peppermint” was the project to lure her back into fighting shape. The elevator pitch is simple: Mom goes to explosive lengths to avenge the death of her family, a whole lot of ass-kicking follows.
But the film arrives at a turning point in Garner’s career, a moment some fans have dubbed her potential “Jenaissance” (*raises hand slowly*). After a decade of supporting roles in films that never quite managed to capture what made her so irresistible in her breakout spy TV series, or the coming-of-age classic “13 Going on 30,” she’s finally back in movie star mode.
She wouldn’t be the first actress to find some mid-career redemption by way of a film about a Woman Who’s Had Just About Enough™. Halle Berry, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lopez and others have all found welcome box office returns in fun but forgettable genre thrillers of the same ilk as “Peppermint.”
By foregoing any semblance of camp for deadly seriousness, however, “Peppermint” never finds that same sweet spot as its predecessors. And in the process, it gravely misunderstands Garner’s essential appeal.
Helmed by “Taken” director Pierre Morel, “Peppermint” follows Garner’s Riley North, a woman who witnesses the murder of her young daughter and husband. After the system fails to bring forth the justice she seeks, and a larger conspiracy to protect a vicious drug cartel is exposed, Riley disappears, only to resurface on the five-year-anniversary of the murders as a hard-boiled killing machine.
There’s a certain thrill to seeing Garner do battle again, pairing an arsenal of weapons with newly ripped biceps to take on her family’s killers. She’s at home in the action arena, somehow making the ridiculous leap from soccer mom to bloodthirsty vigilante believable, even while sporting what looks like a reject hairpiece from a lost episode of “Alias.”
Her revenge is ruthless as she breaks bones, shatters kneecaps and scores headshots, but this rote brutality hardly leaves an impression ― save for a well-executed shootout at a piñata factory early in the film.
With all her action bravado and star power, Garner is still stuck in the middle of a joyless, bloody outing that leaves you yearning for the days of Sydney Bristow and her roundhouse kick.
“Peppermint” takes a worthy stab at fusing two aspects of Garner’s persona that have long been in conflict: her action hero abilities and her celebrity mother credentials. (Reminder: Garner’s pregnancy before the final season of “Alias” and desire to start a family is often cited as a reason for its end.) As she became increasingly famous for dating, marrying and later divorcing Ben Affleck, her pedigree as the go-to action heroine slipped with diminishing returns in films like “Elektra” and “The Kingdom.”
In follow-ups like “Juno,” “Miracles of Heaven” and most recently “Love, Simon,” she found her real-life mother status creeping into her on-screen performances.
So, what better comeback vehicle than one that capitalizes on the public’s familiarity with her as a mom who will do anything for her children and a built-in fan base dying to see her kick ass again?
Except “Peppermint” forgets that we need to root for Garner, who spends the film dialing up a dark, gritty persona ― much like her performance in the universally derided solo Marvel superhero film, “Elektra” ― and mowing down hordes of gang members.
That’s not to say that the actress isn’t up for the task. She’s more than convincing as a grieving woman (and one of the best criers on screen today). The film, however, suffocates her spark with a copy-and-paste story of “corrupt cops, dirty judges” and dialogue that could’ve easily been lifted from a CBS procedural rerun, save for a couple of F-bombs.
(Note: if you’ve ever wanted to see Garner yell, “I will shoot you in the fucking face!” this is your movie.)
Since Garner is essentially the only true departure from a revenge movie formula worn tried and true (“The Punisher,” “Death Wish,” etc.), the film traffics in xenophobic stereotypes common to the genre. Latinx gunmen with MS-13-esque face tattoos, bandanas and lowrider cars are the enemy here, snickering about the loss of North’s daughter in one scene and referring to her almost exclusively as a bitch.
The movie pays no mind to painting its bad guys with lazy and unsubtle brushstrokes. These depictions are, of course, especially unhelpful amid the paranoia marketed by the Trump administration, which has weaponized and mischaracterized gang violence to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment.
Making matters worse, the film positions Garner as the white savior of the downtrodden, who find the time to paint a laughably detailed mural in her honor.
(And, for the love of Victor Garber, can someone please explain why this movie is called “Peppermint” when the titular ice cream flavor receives only a single mention? Seriously, there are more legitimate grounds for renaming “Alias” “Coffee Ice Cream.”)
The all-too-brief moments when “Peppermint” indulges in self-awareness by poking fun at its own premise reveal glimmers of the star vehicle that could’ve been. When Garner’s avenging angel kidnaps a former foe from her PTA days, the movie crackles with campy tension as the two spar in the verbal and literal sense. Garner also comes alive after crossing paths with an alcoholic parent, whom she gleefully admonishes in a liquor store encounter to stop drinking and take his son Christmas shopping.
What the filmmakers and maybe even Garner herself have forgotten is that as much as we praise her action prowess, her comedic instincts are just as refined. Watch any of her late-night talk show interviews over the last decade and charm literally oozes off the screen. The evidence is there in her prior films that came and went with little attention, too, like “Butter” and “The Invention of Lying.”
Even “Alias,” which benefitted from a far stronger script than “Peppermint,” succeeded because it never took itself too seriously and at its best embraced its campy, comic book core. Garner can deliver a one-liner and a debilitating blow with similar ease, but “Peppermint” never gives her a shot to excel at both.
Rest assured, there’s still hope for Garner stans! In the form of the Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner-helmed HBO comedy series “Camping,” in which Garner plays another mother on the verge. Except this time, she’s wearing Lululemon and self-destructing in hilarious, nonviolent ways.
Only time will tell if the Jenaissance is upon us. Either way, Garner deserves better roles from Hollywood, and so do we.