Anything Liam Neeson can do, Jennifer Garner can do better. At least that’s the premise of this hilariously awful, insanely hard-to-swallow action thriller from Taken director Pierre Morel. Turns out the only ones who’ll be taken by this shoddy rip-off are the audience. Peppermint stars Garner as Riley North, an overworked Los Angeles soccer mom turned vigilante when her husband (Jeff Hephner) and young daughter (Cailey Fleming) are gunned down by members of a drug cartel. The killers are set free thanks to a corrupt justice system paid off by kingpin Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), and Peppermint — North used to sell Girl Scout cookies, get it? — is set on a path to vengeance. After five years of ninja-style training, she returns to L.A. to exact justice for her slain family.
Fans of Garner (count me in) have been salivating to see the actress return to the butt-kicking, take-no-prisoners form she showcased in Alias, the TV series from J.J. Abrams that ran from 2001 to 2006 and starred Garner as international spy Sydney Bristow. Since then, she’s mostly gone the wholesome route in films from Juno to Love, Simon that tamp down her baser instincts and diffuse her inner badass.
So you watch Peppermint eager to see Garner — on the heels of her very public split from Ben Affleck, back in fighting shape and ready to rock — let it rip in an R-rated bone-crusher. And then, splat, the script shoots her down in a relentless volley of clichés. Garner has stated she was drawn to the film because it focused on a mother turned avenging angel. But what’s the message there? And what’s up with the bad guys being mostly tattooed Latinos without a trace of character distinction?
Peppermint dissolves into a series of absurd sequences in which the goons basically line up so North can punch, stab, shoot or blow them up. North also proves expert at healing her own wounds by stitching herself up with a stapler. Ouch! Meanwhile, neither the police nor the cartel henchmen can stop this one-woman army, who even manages to string up three of her family’s murderers on a Ferris wheel without detection. (Of course, social media hails her as a hero.) The other actors are basically straw dogs, waiting to get the Peppermint treatment. It seems to pain the reliably fine John Gallagher, Jr. (The Newsroom’s Jim Harper), to be trapped in the role of the stereotypical LAPD detective. John Ortiz as his partner and Annie Ilonzeh as an FBI boss look similarly narcotized.
After two hours of being barraged by this paint-by-numbers dreck, you’ll also feel dead inside. Even if male stars from Neeson to Bruce Willis have been riding the same gravy train for decades, Garner has the talent to make us expect more. She needed support from the filmmakers. But what did she get? A lazy facsimile of the revenge movie she so richly deserved. There’s no reason audiences should accept it.