In the violent and depressingly obvious revenge drama “Peppermint,” Jennifer Garner takes the role usually assigned to Liam Neeson — the steely, dead-eyed human weapon — without getting to show the interesting part of how she got that way.
Director Pierre Morel, who put Neeson in that role in “Taken,” begins with Garner in a bloody fight in the front seats of a car, ending with her shooting some guy’s brains out. She limps back to her lair, a van on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, where she performs self-surgery on a knife wound on her thigh with vodka, a surgical stapler and some duct tape.
The movie then gives us the backstory, five years earlier, when Garner’s character, Riley North, was a working mom helping her 10-year-old daughter Carly (Called Fleming) sell Firefly cookies. She and her husband, Chris (Jeff Hephner), take Carly to the Christmas carnival for her birthday — which is where three gangsters machine-gun Chris and Carly to death, and nearly kill Riley.
Aided by two LAPD detectives, Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) and Beltran (John Ortiz), Riley testifies against the three gangsters, hitmen for a powerful Mexican drug boss, Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). Even with her testimony, the three are let loose because of a rigged legal system, a corrupt judge (Jeff Harlan) and apathetic prosecutors.
The script, by Chad St. John (who worked on “London Has Fallen”), flashes forward five years, which turns out to be the movie’s tragic flaw. In those five years, as we’re told by an exposition-dispensing FBI agent (Annie Ilonzeh), Riley was traveling the world, learning combat skills and MMA moves, and disappearing before any law enforcement agency could find her. (I always love when screenwriters drop the word “Interpol” as a catch-all for cool international crimefighting.)
This is the tragic flaw because that journey, as Riley hones her body and mind to become a vengeance-seeking killing machine, is way more interesting than the story we get. What we get is a repetitive series of scenes of Riley unleashing herself on Garcia’s army of bullet magnets, interrupted by the occasional conversation between Carmichael and Beltran, still on the case five years later.
There is exactly one surprise element in the long, bloody slog through gangster bodies. That’s when the veteran Beltran warns the younger Carmichael that Garcia has a dirty LAPD cop on the payroll, and we’re expected to spend the bulk of the movie figuring out who it is. Since we only get to know two cops, Beltran and Carmichael (OK, there’s a third, played by Cliff “Method Man” Smith, but he’s introduced so late it doesn’t count), and it’s a coin flip to guess which one’s corrupt. And since St. John and Morel don’t invest in character development, nobody cares about the answer.
Garner gamely fulfills her duties as ruthless warrior, with a few side trips as Skid Row’s menacing guardian angel. (There’s a scene where she threatens a drunk dad at gunpoint to be nicer to his son, and a churlish part of me wondered if that’s what Ben Affleck’s intervention looked like.) But there’s no fire in her performance, only a grim determination to see it to the conclusion. It’s admirable that Garner wants to expand beyond the bubbly romantic-comedy and supportive mom roles that have been her bread-and-butter, but it would have been nice if she had taken a knife to the script and demanded something better.
Opens Friday, Sept. 7, in theaters everywhere. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout. Running time: 102 minutes.