It’s great to see Jennifer Garner return to center stage with a leading role in a film after years in drab supporting spots, but a pity that it’s in picture that’s just a gender-reversal example of the same testosterone-driven nonsense so often entrusted to male stars. “Peppermint,” directed by Pierre Morel, the man responsible for putting Liam Neeson through his paces in the wildly successful “Taken,” is as brainless, and in many ways even more repulsive, a piece of junk as the director’s earlier violent schlock. Garner, of course, has the chops to pull off intense physical action—she demonstrated that in her appearances as Elektra, as bad as the movies might have been, and in her TV hit “Alias.” But in this case that gift is put to pretty noxious use.
“Peppermint” is basically the old “Death Wish” vigilante formula amped up to a thunderous level and given a female spin. Garner plays Riley North, who is introduced as a buffed-up, leather-clad type offing a sleazy, tattooed guy in his car, parked atop a Los Angeles building. But the chronology soon shifts back five years, to when she was a housewife with a job in a bank, a husband, Chris (Jeff Hephner), struggling to keep them financially afloat as a mechanic, and a darling young daughter, Carly (Cailey Fleming), bullied by the rich mother (Pell James) of a pampered classmate.
On December 21, Carly’s birthday, her party is deliberately sabotaged by that same nasty woman, and so the family goes off to a Christmas carnival instead. As they’re leaving, Chris and Carly are mowed down in front of he (in slo-mo, of course) in a drive-by shooting ordered by Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), who wrongly believed that Chris was involved in a scheme to rob him. Carly identifies the three gunmen and, refusing a bribe from their menacing attorney (Michael Mosley), testifies against them. But the corrupt system sets them free, leading her to go into a frenzy. She’s remanded to a mental institution, but escapes.
Now, five years later, she returns to wreak her revenge in a movie that simply reeks. Having learned martial arts and weapons usage during her time on the lam, she begins by executing the three gunmen (one of whom she was shown killing in that opening prologue) and leaving their corpses dangling from the Ferris wheel that she, Chris and Carly had ridden at the Christmas carnival. Then she eliminates the shady lawyers and the corrupt judge (Jeff Harlan) who had turned the original trial into a perversion of justice. (Only the judge’s termination is shown—complete with torture and a radio-controlled explosion.)
Then she turns her sights to Garcia’s operation. Over the course of several assaults on his underlings and his army of men, she must kill nearly a hundred men (almost all Latino), most with a bullet to the head. In the course of it all, she does suffer a few close shaves and some injuries, but a brief rest is usually sufficient to get her up and operating again, especially when the ghostly little figure of Carly shows up to wake her or just encourage her on.
But Riley takes time for a few good deeds, too. At one point she instructs a drunken, abusive father in the rule of good parenting—by sticking a gun in his mouth and threatening to blow his head off (she also tells the liquor store clerk not to sell the guy any more booze, or she’ll blow up his store). Presumably it was also via such direct methods that she cleared Skid Row, where she was hiding out, of crime. All of this, of course, is to make her sympathetic even while she’s wiping folks out in droves. And don’t think she forgets that nasty woman who treated Carly badly at school.
“Pineapple” proceeds through all the mayhem with a crude single-mindedness that’s pretty appalling, though it’s executed fairly efficiently by Garner, Morel, the rest of the cast, cinematographer David Lanzenberg and editor Frederic Thoraval. The only issue that acts as a slight speed bump for the audience as the bloodletting goes relentlessly on is the question of which of the cops pursuing Riley as she continues her spree is dirty. Is it crust cynic Moises Beltran, played by John Ortiz? Or his younger, more idealistic partner Stan Carmichael (John Gallagher, Jr.)? Or Barker, the dilatory narcotics detective (Cliff “Method Man” Smith? Or could it be pretty, no-nonsense FBI Agent Lisa Inman (Anne Ilonzeh)? Who cares since, when the answer is finally revealed, the villain’s previous actions don’t make much sense? Very little in Chad St. John’s script does, but it’s still smart enough to contrive an ending that allows for a sequel, if another slew of plausible victims can be found—“this time it’s NOT personal!”
The title of the movie, incidentally, alludes to the flavor of little Carly’s favorite ice cream, though it undoubtedly is meant more broadly to conjure up a feeling of the sweet and the pungent. In this case, by pandering so shamelessly to its audience’s worst instincts, “Peppermint” delivers a double dip of mindless “Death Wish” carnage, leavened with sappiness, that would have made even Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey blanch.