Usually, seeing a director like Pierre Morel (who helmed the original Taken) attached to a boilerplate revenge film means that, regardless of substance, it should at the very least be a fun ride. But Morel’s latest, Peppermint, lacks both the exploitation thriller aesthetic necessary to bolster its premise and the watertight screenwriting acumen of past collaborators like Luc Besson. It’s a messy, unexciting actioner with a compelling lead and serious optics issues.

Peppermint should be a lot better than it is. It’s got a tried-and-true setup and houses a dynamite performance from Jennifer Garner, here returning to kicking ass on screen for the first time since “Alias” and playing Elektra for two pre-MCU related Daredevil adaptations. But the film’s plagued by shoddy writing, tone-deaf politics and, well, a lot of mediocrity.

Garner stars as Riley North, a vigilante driven by grief. She starts out as a hardworking, middle-class mom just trying to survive, until her husband and daughter are murdered in a drive-by shooting by nebulously defined “cartel” types. When the rigged justice system sets them free, she robs a bank, steals some guns and runs away to become some version of the Punisher. On its face, a female-led Death Wish pastiche has the potential to be an easy slam dunk, but this one just hits so many wrong notes.

For starters, the film opens with Riley already being a badass, ruthless killer of criminals. She lives in a van and seals her own gunshot wounds with duct tape. It then flashes back to her little origin story, which is doled out with the emotional bluntness of a Lifetime flick, before cutting back to the present day, leaving out the five years in between where she transforms from working mom to skilled mercenary. There is literally no ground covered in showing how she developed and honed these skills.

There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to waste too much time with training sequences. Given this film’s lack of originality, all it would have included are montages of Garner shooting beer cans in a trailer park with a sage old man—likely played by Sam Elliott—talking to her poetically about handguns. But, c’mon, you’re just going to gloss over a pretty important staple of the genre? It robs Riley of anything resembling character growth. She just flips a switch between the opposite ends of the hollow female lead stereotype with no gray area in between to chew on.

Despite this, Garner gives a very strong performance. Even though she’s in a schlockfest, she’s bringing her A-game and treating Riley like a character from an altogether better-realized film. Her emotion and intensity are all this flick really has going for it, but it’s also one of the film’s problems. See, Riley in the second and third acts is written like a tough-talking, bad-guy-mocking archetype, but she still plays each moment like she’s in a harrowing melodrama. She never lets herself have any fun.

Perhaps that’s fitting given how devoid of pulp thrills this movie actually is. Morel’s action-helming has never been more stale and humdrum. A movie like this typically functions on the strength of its carnage, and outside of one particularly sweet scene where Riley blows up a corrupt judge, the rest of the film’s action is pedestrian at best and muddled at worst. Why even see an action thriller with crummy action and zero real thrills? Who is this movie even for?

That brings us to this film’s biggest issue. Though it seems more like a made-for-TV drama with shades of grit, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that this is a movie designed for Trump’s America. It wouldn’t be fair to call Chad St. John’s shoddy screenplay a feature-length dog whistle, if only because that would imply an unprovable intent that also would be giving him a little too much creative credit. But there’s no denying the underlying grossness of the film’s marketing materials. There’s an otherness to the way the film’s primary antagonists, almost exclusively Mexicans, are portrayed. Riley’s quest for vengeance should feel personal and intimate. She’s lost her family, after all. But there’s no shaking the sense that she’s intended to be a neutral mask for working-class moms whose worlds are somehow being disrupted by evil men slipping past our borders that the system is too corrupt to stop. There’s one particularly egregious moment when her family’s killers get off in court that feels like an outtake from a campaign ad radicalizing suburban whites against the threat of MS-13 that made this reviewer literally laugh out loud.

This is a film that takes the time to examine the financial hardship of raising a daughter when both parents have crummy jobs, to the point that the husband has to consider turning to a life of crime, only to then be slain for backing out of a job at the last minute. But this same film sees all the tatted-up Latinos selling drugs as faceless murderers, never once stopping to explore the flipside of that socioeconomic coin. It’d be one thing if the film chose to explicitly portray these specific gang members as sadists failing to honor some kind of gangster code, but Peppermint, as a movie, doesn’t bother to do even that.

In gritty action thrillers, an audience can easily sympathize with criminals, because crime fiction often dictates a blurred line between good and bad, right and wrong. Peppermint coasts by on middle-American fear, knowing that characters of Latin American descent are scary enough for a certain subset of viewers. It’s fucking gross for a film to be this brazen in its pandering and not even have the decency to make the finished product even moderately entertaining for those of us who aren’t aroused by blind hatred for immigrants. At least now we can say Garner has made a worse film than Elektra.

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