It was just early this year when Marvel’s Black Widow was essentially appropriated for a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle you probably remember entitled Red Sparrow (click here for that review). Now, from Pierre Morel, the director of Taken, comes another let’s-pretend-it’s-not-a-Marvel-character movie starring Jennifer Garner, this time by the name of Peppermint. Morel hasn’t really done any noteworthy work since his runaway 2008 Liam Neeson hit, but Peppermint has been his best shot at returning to relevance and avoiding one-hit-wonder status. Coupled with a recently-reemerging Jennifer Garner, the potential for this one has been strong. Ultimately, while delivering on certain levels – perhaps the levels most are hoping for – a lack of both originality and conviction ultimately weigh the film down and prevent it from becoming anything truly revelatory.
The story is this: The Punisher. Really. This is The Punisher starring Jennifer Garner. Aside from the little details (like character names, locations, etc.) and the gender-swapped lead, absolutely no effort whatsoever is made to distinguish this character or narrative from that of the popular Marvel antihero. Don’t believe me? Chad St. John, who gets the lone screenwriter credit on Peppermint, also wrote a 2012 short film called Dirty Laundry starring Thomas Jane in which Jane reprised the role of – you guessed it – Frank Castle, the Punisher.
Honestly, listen to the premise. Garner plays loving wife and mother Riley North. When Riley’s husband and daughter are gunned down by the mob, she vows revenge against those who took her family from her and anyone who would do the same to anyone else. So, that’s the Punisher. The origin is the same. The philosophy is the same. The methodology is the same. The motivating factor is the same. And, people, listen. Listen to me. SHE EVEN HAS A BATTLE VAN. This is St. John writing the Punisher movie he’s always wanted to write but has never been afforded the opportunity to.
Now, having firmly established that this film is a blatant ripoff of the Punisher, allow me to say that it’s not entirely without it’s enjoyable elements. I had a good time seeing Garner back in an action role like this. As so many others did, I was introduced to her through “Alias”, her popular (and often overlooked) serial drama on ABC. She’s had a bit of a higher profile, lately, with a featured role in the excellent comedy-drama Love, Simon (here’s that review. It’s a can’t-miss film for true movie lovers.) and I’ve always liked her, so I’m glad to see she hasn’t gone away. She owns this part and completely sells Riley’s mission, even if it’s an ill-conceived one.
As one might expect from the director of Taken, the action is top-notch, as well. When Riley strikes, she strikes with brutality and finality. She remarks that she wants justice, but it’s clear that vengeance is her true desire. Is it a stretch that a domestic wife and mother could transform herself into a machine of violence and destruction with enough motivation? Eh. I’m not about to rule anything out when it comes to losing a child. But Garner and Morel combine their efforts to ensure that it’s believable and authentic, succeeding in that regard with little question.
Where I’m still fence-sitting is in the moral ambiguity displayed by the picture. Morel neither explicitly endorses nor disavows Riley’s actions, instead just telling the (Punisher’s) story and letting the viewer come to their own conclusions. But, make no mistake, while Riley is sympathetic, she’s no hero. She’s a vigilante who lets her own ambitions run away from her. She enacts her vengeance (punishment) on at least one person who does not deserve it. Early in the film, she makes the comment that no one should lower themselves to match the actions of bad people, and then she does that. I get it; she’s changed by her loss. Understandable. But that doesn’t make it right. This isn’t Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, though. Morel doesn’t have the responsibility to adult audiences that a film such as Teen Titans does to younger viewers. If a grown human being is of the unfortunate mind that Riley’s actions are in any way excusable, it’s not because of a movie. So, the ambiguity may be viewed as either a negative or a positive, but even Marvel has always been clear that the Punisher should not be held in high regard. I think I would have preferred at least a little more effort from St. John and Morel to establish the same notion, here.
Peppermint is another in a long line of mixed bags. Garner is fantastic and this part is a return to form and to what brought her to the dance. It’s fun to see her do her thing, again. The action is impactful but the story is an undeniable ripoff of the Punisher – though I’d venture to say it’s better than all of the Punisher films except for the Thomas Jane version. Morel and St. John refuse to take a stance, though, perhaps not wanting to interrupt the entertainment factor with those pesky morals and ethics. I can see this one getting varied reactions from viewers. I don’t know what yours would be, so take what I’ve given you and do as you please with it. If the movie leads to more roles like this for Garner, though, I’ll ultimately consider it a win.
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