Jennifer Garner has a very particular set of skills. Skills she had already acquired at the start of her long acting career. Skills that, with a few noble exceptions, Hollywood has had a nightmare of a time trying to properly showcase. In the vigilante film “Peppermint,” “Taken” director Pierre Morel finally looks to exploit one of Garner’s defining skillsets that has long gone untapped, giving this effortlessly empathetic yet deceptively steely actress her first chance to play a kick-ass action star since the deservedly beloved “Alias” and the deservedly forgotten “Elektra.” As a onetime Girl Scout den mother turned brass-knuckled avenging angel, Garner gives everything that is asked of her, from brute physicality to dewy-eyed tenderness, but this half-witted calamity botches just about everything else. Drably by-the-numbers except for the moments where it goes gobsmackingly off-the-rails, “Peppermint” misfires from start to finish.
Garner stars as Riley North, whom we first meet cold-bloodedly dispatching a nameless assailant in the shadow of the Los Angeles skyline, then limping back to her van on Skid Row to administer some gruesome self-surgery. The character’s eventual badassery thus established, we flash back to five years earlier, when she was just a simple working-class mom employed as a bank teller. Married to mechanic Chris (Jeff Hephner) and doting on ten-year-old daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming), Riley and her family are living hand-to-mouth, and Chris toys with a chance to earn quick money as a getaway driver for his coworker’s ill-explained plot to rob a sociopathic local drug lord named Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). Chris wisely thinks better of it and opts out, but not before Garcia learns of the plan and looks to make an example of the would-be thieves: As Riley looks on, both her husband and daughter are riddled with bullets from three of Garcia’s minions.
In the aftermath, Riley is hospitalized for a month, evicted from her home, and approached by LAPD detective Stanley Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) to identify the shooters in court. Thanks to some comically corrupt judges and prosecutors, the killers are allowed to walk without trial, and Riley is committed to a mental hospital. Smashing Stanley over the head with a fire extinguisher on the way there, she escapes.
You might reasonably expect the rest of the film to concern itself with Riley’s years on the run, as she mourns her loved ones, trains to become a master of the deadly arts, tracks her family’s killers through webs of underworld intrigue, and revels in the queasy catharsis of dealing out final justice. Instead, “Peppermint” makes sure to keep the meat of its heroine’s journey largely offscreen. When next we see Riley, she’s somehow already turned herself into a finely-honed killing machine, left the bodies of the three gunmen strung up dead on a Ferris wheel, and launched into a one-woman campaign to take down Garcia’s entire cartel. Now a disheveled drunk, Stanley is dragged back onto the case, assisted by a straight-arrow partner (John Ortiz) and a hard-nosed FBI agent (Annie Ilonzeh).
As usual, Garner displays an almost heroic refusal to smirk, sigh, or sleepwalk through any of this, never acting as though the material is beneath her, even when it’s something she could be scraping off the bottom of her shoe. But it’s hard to say if the film would have necessarily been worse off if she let us know she’s in on the joke, as “Peppermint” is never more risible than in the moments it takes itself most seriously. From “Death Wish” onward, films of this ilk have long been dogged by a reactionary, if not borderline fascistic, approach to matters of race, and “Peppermint” makes a ham-fisted go at splitting the difference by casting actors of color in the supporting good guy roles, while also playing to Fox News’ swampiest MS-13 fever dreams in its depiction of Garcia’s gang. (It makes no attempt, however, to dodge the white savior tropes that are also endemic to vigilante pics, with one laugh-out-loud shot in particular pushing things well beyond the point of parody.)
Perhaps some viewers could ignore all that if “Peppermint” delivered on the action front, but save for one slam-bang shootout in a piñata shop, there’s a veneer of cheapness to the whole endeavor that keeps even the numbskull thrills from really connecting. Morel’s habit of shaking the camera to underscore every strong emotion does nothing to hide the script’s lack of a real character arc, and a score that seems sourced from Evanescence outtakes only strengthens the feeling that this film is a relic from some bygone era. Maybe it should have stayed there.