I’ve developed a little theory over the years that I like to call the Tuition Principle. Are you watching a well-respected star slumming it in an action bonebreaker that you think would be beneath him or her? (Cough, Liam Neeson, cough.) Go online and see when their kids were born. If they’re in high school or their late teens, bingo: You’ve discovered a perfect reason for an actor to trade in star power for some ready B-movie cash.
I don’t think Jennifer Garner’s children are quite that old yet, but she’s a single mother now, and she became one a few months before signing up in 2017 to star in her latest release, “Peppermint.” Is all this idle gossip, arrant Us Weekly speculation? Absolutely. But at least it’s something to keep you occupied while you watch the movie itself, a cookie-cutter lady-vigilante flick with an ugly old-school overlay of racial profiling.
Written by Chad St. John as a throwback to revenge flicks of the 1980s and ’90s, and directed with functional impersonality by Pierre Morel, the movie casts Garner as Riley North, a Los Angeles working mom who, in an early flashback, sees her kind but naive husband (Jeff Hephner) and little daughter (Cailey Fleming) killed by Mexican drug gangsters.
Aside from the middle-American wholesomeness of the victims, that setup is almost beside the point. “Peppermint” exists solely for Riley — who in the five years between then and now has gone undercover and traveled the world to become an expert kickboxer, knife-fighter, and munitions expert — to bloodily dispatch wave after wave of swarthy, tattooed, heavily accented hombres, all the way up to a sneering kingpin with the not-at-all generic name of Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba).
Running half-hearted interference is a gritty cop (John Gallagher Jr., who looks about 12 years old), his wise elder (John Ortiz), and an FBI agent (Annie Ilonzeh) who’s too smart for this movie. As Riley cuts a swath of predictable mayhem across the Greater LA basin, she becomes a social media sensation, but the movie only nods in that direction. Its heart, soul, and guts are back in a pre-Internet era when all movie Meskins could be evil cartoons and no one got upset.
I guess The Base needs movies, too, and “Peppermint” has moments of crude style and possibly intentional amusement to keep the rest of us awake. That said, the stabs at sentiment — including the ghost of Riley’s dead child and two homeless tykes she takes under her avenging angel’s wing — are more gruesome than the shootouts.
Garner bulls her way through the film with determination and a minimum of facial expressions, like someone who’s been told to clean up something awful and just wants to get it over with. So what if Charlize Theron did it better in “Atomic Blonde,” last year’s female-led brawler that is in every conceivable way superior to “Peppermint”? Garner has the kids to think of, and I’m not sure they’re the ones onscreen.
Directed by Pierre Morel. Written by Chad St. John. Starring Jennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr., John Ortiz, Juan Pablo Raba. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 102 minutes. R (strong violence and language throughout).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.