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Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. You've likely heard that saying before, but nothing can prepare you for a movie about a woman who is genuinely and thoroughly pissed off. That's precisely what Taken director Pierre Morel and Jennifer Garner have done with Peppermint, and while that hard-R revenge thriller wins no points for its narrative originality, it seriously makes up for it by delivering effective tension, visceral violence, and a standout performance from Garner that may leave you wanting more from her in the action world.
Peppermint centers its story on Riley North, a Southern California mom trying her best to make ends meet while also building a happy and stable life for her young daughter. However, when her husband finds himself on the wrong side of the law, the family is targeted for assassination by a ruthless drug cartel. Surviving a hit that claimed the life of her family, Riley goes off the grid for five years and then returns a changed woman -- a woman who has trained and hardened herself into a bonafide killing machine. Along the way, she finds herself turned into a mythic hero, as the disenfranchised masses of Los Angeles come out in droves to support her war on crime.
Right off the bat, it needs to be said that Peppermint very much feels like it stems from the visual eye of Taken director Pierre Morel. Even though the location has changed from the rain-soaked streets of Paris to the sunny (but still very grimy) realm of Los Angeles, Peppermint follows some of his more well-worn beats. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as his strengths as a filmmaker shine through as Peppermint regularly evolves its style, thriving most with emotionally-driven action that switches up settings. In one scene, Riley is fighting a single opponent in the confines of a car, and in the next, she is sneaking into a compound with a silencer-equipped rifle. It may seem like a small detail, but that degree of reinvention from sequence to sequence helps Peppermint feel fresh from beginning to end.
Of course, none of this would work without a strong lead actor anchoring the entire affair. Luckily, Jennifer Garner's return to the action genre is nothing short of stellar on a performance level. Drawing a clear distinction between the various moments in Riely North's life (pre-hit, and post-hit), Garner creates a badass heroine who is decidedly more complex and real than many of the other male action heroes seen in the revenge genre recently. Not quite as supernaturally gifted as someone like John Wick, while also far more competent and physical than the various incarnations of the Death Wish story, North is a pure, bat-out-of-hell vigilante who pulls no punches and kills without mercy. That said, Garner and Pierre Morel deliver the kills with such emotional gusto that she remains relatable and entertaining the entire way through.
That is aided by the fact that Riley north is a uniquely human heroine. The film does not hold her up on a pedestal or make her bulletproof -- which is so often the case in the modern superhero era. Instead, Peppermint indulges in just how fragile Riley is (physically as well as mentally) and as a result, some of the most memorable scenes in the movie are the ones in which she breaks down or has to perform first aid on a (truly horrific looking) wound.
However, a strong lead performance and effective action are only as good as the villains and the story that frames them. In that regard, Peppermint does feel incredibly paint-by-numbers, with a cartel full of bad buys who never rise above anything other than pure cannon fodder, and a story structure that we have seen time and time again.
With all of that said, there's arguably one major thematic element that makes Peppermint with a watch: the unflinching view of female rage. Though never preachy or heavy-handed in its depiction of a lone woman going up against an army of men, the film clearly leans on the idea of a mother's rage as its core throughline. It's something that we have seldom seen in the revenge genre, and it will make you wonder why more hard-R action movies aren't made with women in lead roles once you realize how fertile this storytelling landscape is.
All in all, Peppermint is an above-average take on the revenge fantasy genre that rises above the lesser competitors by delivering a genuinely emotional tale that's anchored by a fantastic lead performance. The action is as good as you would expect it to be from someone like Pierre Morel, but the pathos at the heart of this story is ultimately what makes it worth your time and money. In a cinematic landscape full of superheroes, Riley North is as memorable as they come.