PEPPERMINT Review: Punisher, I Barely Know ‘Er

Jennifer Garner's Frank Castle impression needs some work. A lot of work.

After expending way too many brain cells on the problem, I still have no grasp on who exactly Peppermint is meant to be for. You would think the trailer would make that obvious, as the given plot description is about as close to copyright infringement on Marvel's The Punisher as one can get, the only major difference being the female lead of Jennifer Garner. Other than that, the only pull seemed to come in the form of overt racism, as the culprits responsible for killing Garner's family are the caricatured embodiment of Latino drug dealers. And don't get me wrong, Peppermint has its fair share of racial insensitivity, but those looking to see a White angel of vengeance lay waste to Hispanic thugs will likely need to hang their MAGA hats elsewhere, because the film is too lethargic to even care about that glaring subtext or how it would be received.

Peppermint doesn't so much lay out its plot as hang it limply on familiar beats without any inventiveness or creativity. After Riley North (Garner) watches her husband and daughter get gunned down by cartel members and the justice system allows them to go free because she isn't a credible witness, she disappears for five years only to come back on the anniversary of her family's death to exact vengeance on the drug dealers and corrupt officials responsible for the miscarriage of justice. That's not a bad start for a story, but that seems to be about as far as screenwriter Chad St. John thought it through.

If you want a fix of vigilante justice, you would be better served almost anywhere else, because Peppermint is about as barebones as possible while still technically being a movie. The biggest tell is that Peppermint paints such stark shades of morality that any demonstration of evil is farcical. The leader of a murderous cartel is portrayed as equally malicious as Riley's rival mother in their daughters' off-brand Girl Scout troop, which would be hilarious if the film didn't think making Riley the center of moral certitude deserved the grimmest and most serious of attitudes. This is why the racial stereotyping doesn't end up feeling malicious, or at least not like a direct commentary reinforcing anti-Latino bigotry; the film is so lazy that it's clear the implications of the racist optics were hardly, if ever, even considered, merely using the idea of "gangs" as a shorthand for "criminal army full of disposable human props for our hero to kill." For crying out loud, one of the film's main action setpieces takes place in a piñata store and Peppermint can't be bothered to have even a little bit of fun with that idea, in poor taste or otherwise.

Those looking to see a triumphant return of Jennifer Garner to action films will also have to keep waiting. Say what you will about The Punisher being a hypermasculine brutality fantasy, at least Frank Castle is a character with pathos capable of deconstruction and analysis. Riley North is a grunting, near-emotionless cipher, devoid of distinguishing traits beyond the lip-service paid to concepts the film never deigns to explore. There's talk about how Riley has become a hero on social media for her vigilante actions, but that neither affects her quest nor impacts the police investigation into her capture, serving only as a limp justification for her homicidal rampage. The only stab at giving Riley any character comes through an allusion to the idea that her trauma has driven her psychotic, but this is passingly represented by moments of shaky, fast cutting that tell you more about the editor's taste in early 2000s nu-metal music videos than it does about who Riley North is.

All of this self-seriousness and shallowness could be forgivable to action junkies if the film at least delivered in the thrills department, but Peppermint has an absolutely bizarre relationship to its action scenes, namely that half of them appear to be completely missing. There are brief moments of one-woman-armying that play as rote and predictable, allowing Garner to get occasionally physical but usually amounting to little more than lackadaisical headshotting, yet so much plot-critical vengeance happens off-screen, elaborated upon in exposition or found corpses but left conspicuously absent from the narrative beats of the film itself. It's enough to make one believe that there is a two-and-a-half-hour cut of this film out there that got cut down to prioritize the paper-thin plot over the formulaic action, and it seems like neither option would have produced an entertaining movie if the action beats they opted to keep are any indication.

I came to Peppermint hoping to get some trashy fun, completely problematic but at least fun from an acknowledgment that a lot can be tolerated for the sake of bloody catharsis. But Peppermint doesn't understand the idea of fun any more than it understands the appeal of vengeance narratives or strengths of its lead actress. That's why I can't figure out who Peppermint is supposed to be for; it doesn't appear to have been made to appeal to anyone at all.