You have seen “Peppermint” before. Directed by Pierre Morel (“Taken”) and starring Jennifer Garner as Riley North, a hard-working suburban mom turned avenging angel, the vigilante thriller hits all the major tropes of the genre. If Hollywood diversions like “Death Wish” and the bizarro “Face/Off” are your bag, choosing to spend 90-plus minutes watching Ms. Garner return to her early action-hero roots and peel off dozens of evil men with ease might seem like a no-brainer. Yet “Peppermint” is a belabored exercise in lazily constructed déjà vu, without the grit or stylized ham of predecessors it so baldly steals from.
During a family outing, Riley’s husband and child are gunned down by members of a Latino cartel led by Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), and the killers she identifies escape punishment because of a crooked legal system. She runs away before being committed to a mental institution and spends five years globe-trotting incognito, training to become an expert fighter and gunwoman in order to seek revenge.
As Riley, Ms. Garner growls and scowls her way through her ruthless murder spree, limping like Bruce Willis’s John McClane when injured, but the script’s attempts to forge a resonant emotional connection with her character’s loss ring hollow: After interacting with a young boy on a bus who reminds her of her daughter, for instance, she follows his deadbeat father into a liquor store and threatens him at gunpoint, demanding he be a better father — or else. It is meant to evoke Riley’s transformation into some sort of mama bear-Batman hybrid, but the whole scene is just embarrassing.
Riley rarely mumbles more than a couple of hackneyed lines when confronting her targets. TV news talking heads who comment on the action, as well as “Law & Order”-style rundowns by the detectives on her case — Moses Beltran (John Ortiz), Stan Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) and Lisa Inman (Annie Ilonzeh) — are employed by the screenwriter Chad St. John to fill in the character-building. But “John Wick” this is not: Even the action scenes lack heft, as Riley is such an expert shooter that hardly any of the adversaries she confronts put up a fight.
The paper-thin characterization and clumsy aesthetic choices (frequent, distorted-looking flashbacks) should at least make “Peppermint” a solid contender for so-bad-it’s-goodness; collective audience cackles reverberated through the screening I attended. Unfortunately, the film plays dangerously into violent Latino stereotypes. One blood bath takes place in a piñata warehouse, where Riley mows down Diego’s unsuspecting gang one by one, to the tune of a heavy metal song with Spanish lyrics. All of the dead appear to be Latinos (save for a couple of Korean mob allies), but she leaves the sole white guy working there alive in order to interrogate him. The moment says a lot about the way Hollywood continuously villainizes people of color and values certain lives over others.