Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May
Let’s get two obvious things out of the way from the beginning.
First, Peppermint is a terrible title. Just awful. Even after it’s been explained. It skirts the gravitas of the story and doesn’t exactly embody vigilante action.
Second, the story is just another Death Wish, or Punisher. As a broad narrative, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen a dozen times over.
Ok, now that we got that out there, we must remind ourselves that the value of any story depends on two factors: what is says, and how it says it. We’ve covered the “what,” so let’s talk about the “how.”
I’m going to start at the top with Jennifer Garner as Riley North, overwhelmed working mom turned one-woman hurricane of death. I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to see her return to her action roots, having been a huge fan of Alias when it first premiered. I think she has an amazing screen presence, and enough talent to conquer just about any role in any genre. After years eschewing bad-assery for safer, more mainstream comedic fair and becoming recognizable to a whole new generation as merely the Capital One-card lady, she’s finally ready to flex her steely muscles again in her bloodiest role yet.
And she kills it.
Too many revenge films gloss over the tragedy that drives the protagonist to such unfathomable actions, but thanks to a clever script and Garner’s effective emoting, we genuinely feel her loss, her pain, and her anger. And as we jump right into the action, Garner’s background serves her well. We completely buy-in to her as both soccer mom and tough-as-nails neck-cracker. Unlike many heroes of the genre who seem to shut off, becoming cold, mindless killing machines until the job is done, Garner is able to retain her humanity and vulnerability even as the bodies pile up. She never plays Riley as an unstoppable master of death after only a few years of training, but more as someone disciplined and competent enough to pull off her scheme with a little luck and a heap of willpower. It’s an effective blend of her past roles, and presents a character that really only she might conceivably bring off the page.
Director Pierre Morel knows what it takes to balance action and character, having carved impressive roads with the likes of the original Taken, From Paris with Love, and his debut film District B13. And while he’s had missteps (The Gunman anyone?) he seems to have returned to form here, understanding that connection is the key to setting this film apart. The visual tragedy of seeing Riley’s husband and daughter gunned down before her is such a punch to the gut, it’s the first time in years I can recall literally cringing as I watched helplessly. Little relief is offered as Riley is continually kicked while she’s down by corrupt lawyers and judges who refuse her justice. Morel spends—rightly so—far more time exploring Riley’s pain, both from within and without, than on generic storypoints, ditching clichés like the traditional training montage or her sitting alone, drowning her sorrows as she designs her ingenious plot to take out those who’ve wronged her. Forget that. Instead we concentrate on what drives her, forcing us to viscerally connect to the character and feel much more invested in the outcome than we might have otherwise in such a cookie-cutter shoot-em-up.
The story also cleverly avoids, or at least side-steps, several other narrative tropes, though there are a few that certainly work their way in. We know, for the most part, who will live, who will die, who is good, who is bad; though there is a twist or two snuck in just to subvert our expectations (though I’m still not convinced I was sold one major reveal). But overall, we stick to it because of Garner’s and her castmate’s strong performances. John Gallagher, Jr, John Ortiz, and Juan Pablo Raba in particular exhibit enough charisma and depth to carry the film and the audience’s attention while Garner is offscreen.
The action elements are exciting and inventive, reminiscent of the new tend blazed by the John Wick films, though not quite as innovative. Garner certainly hasn’t forgotten how to use a weapon, but she also realizes she’s not playing Sydney Bristow, military expert, and adds just a touch of clumsiness and uncertainty to keep it believable. She bests her opponents more through preparation and, yes, chance, than through mastery and takes enough of a licking that we become truly concerned as to whether they’ll be a sequel in her future.
By the end though, Morel et al. have satiated our need for blood, revenge, and justice, and taken us on far more emotional ride than we had any right to expect. Peppermint doesn’t break the mold, but shows that with the right ingredients in the right order, you can still pull something exciting and enjoyable out of it. I hope that audiences give the film a chance, and that possible forthcoming installments might break out and take Riley in wholly fresh directions.
And yet, I pray they haven’t painted themselves into a corner: The Peppermint Chronicles just doesn’t have a proper ring to it, does it?
YANG: The Meg
Shakespeare it may not be, but if you go in with the proper expectations, The Meg is one helluva fun dive into the deep end of the popcorn pool.
Director John Turteltaub has made a career out of taking seemingly implausible events and turning them into rollicking adventure (remember those National Treasure movies?). This time he not only pits Statham up against a massive, underwater prehistoric apex predator (no contest) but enlists a cadre of colorful and interesting characters to help.
The film sees tragedy-stricken reluctant hero Jonas Taylor (Statham) pulled out of his stupor for one last rescue. Nothing too groundbreaking there, though we get a nice twist in that the rescue is simply the jumping off point, not the driving storyline, as a much, MUCH larger problem emerges from the watery depths. The setup for why we haven’t come across this monstrosity before is satisfyingly clever, and while Statham is the top biller, there are plenty of supporting characters making legitimate contributions to make it a workable ensemble piece.
And speaking of partners, Chinese audiences have been recognized more and more for the major role they play in international grosses, and as such more and more films are being co-produced and co-financed through China. As a result, they expect—rightly so—some major representation onscreen, and if you’ve ever watched Chinese films, there is no shortage of amazing talent out there.
Here, our trio starts with Li Bingbing, the ethereally beautiful and remarkably talented rising international star. Though working in a foreign language, she has no problems bringing forth an impressive amount of layered acting to the role of scientist Suyin, who not only keeps up with Taylor but proves a valuable and critical partner, leading to their very sweet and refreshingly modest growing affection. But the real scene stealer here is young Meiying, played by the so-cute-she-must-have-been-built-in-a-lab Shuya Sophia Cai.
Young Cai brings a sharp and mature performance well above her age, and with her charm and wit, feels like a valuable member of the group rather than the typical set piece there only to either stir up trouble or be rescued from it. She’s a fresh, sweet face that adds to the colorful, eclectic, and familial mosaic of the adventure. Completing the triangle is veteran Winston Chao, delivering a commanding but endearing turn as Suyin’s father and a major scientific force behind their undersea company.
These Chinese actors don’t feel shoehorned in, but rather as an organic part of the multinational whole, which includes stalwart thespian and Kiwi Cliff Curtis, Icelander Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, and Japanese-American Masi Oka (of Heroes fame).
And of course, we have some stereotypical-yet-enjoyable Americans rounding it out with Page Kennedy as the comic relief, Ruby Rose as the intelligent badass, and Rainn Wilson in an unusual turn as the eccentric billionaire funding the project. Wilson in particular somewhat embodies the film. His character could easily be played as the villainous, money-grubbing asshole. But he manages to tread the line, injecting light comedy as appropriate, compassion and understanding on occasion, and authority when necessary. It’s the same tight line that the movie itself walks, between clichéd absurdity and delightfully amusing romp.
Lest we neglect, Statham delivers as well as ever, imbuing his character with those equal amounts of intensity, machismo, humor, and playfulness he’s known for. The character isn’t much different from any other he’s played, and that’s not a bad thing when he plays it so well. And the climactic showdown between him and the Megalodon is as ridiculous as it is awesome, and practically worth the price of admission right there!
The effects in the film border on cheesy at times, but overall suffice to place you in this underwater world and hold you under til the end. The Megalodon is given appropriate weight and scale to represent a true threat, and it takes its requisite bite out of enough baddies to keep the audience cheering. The humans, for their part, do enough practical stunts to keep you feeling engaged with their plight, and the action gags are consistently intense. The pressure, as well as the danger, rises believably and exponentially.
But to its credit, The Meg knows exactly the sort of movie it is and wants to be. The gore is kept to a needed minimum, and the danger is of the exciting rather than scary variety. The color pallet helps stabilize the tone, avoiding going too dark and instead opting for brightness and color to remind us we’re having fun. That balance is also struck between the laughs and the gasps, no easy feat, and Turteltaub deftly steers each line, each scene to the exact place it needs to go.
Not as scary as Jaws, not as absurd as Sharknado, but finding its own way amongst what has become a genre unto itself, The Meg is summer movie escapism at its finest and worth splashing around in for a couple of hours.