There are a few mythical wonders Man has been searching for since time immemorial. The Fountain of Youth. The Lost Kingdom of Atlantis. The Female Action Star. That last one may be the most frustratingly elusive because Hollywood has been chasing it since at least the 1960s and every time they think they’ve found it, it slips through their fingers like sand in the desert. Compared to the Female Action Star, the Male Romance Star is practically ubiquitous. Hugh Grant. Colin Firth. John Cusack. Hugh Jackman. Ryan Gosling. Richard Gere. Heck, you’re more likely to see someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger in a romantic comedy like “Junior” (1994) than you are to see Julia Roberts strap on a gun and rack up a body count.
But no matter how many times they fail and, most importantly, no matter how many times they see a momentary success sputter and die out in the exact same way, filmmakers continue to believe the Female Action Star remains just over the horizon and if they reach a little bit farther, glory and fortune will be theirs. This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown takes a look at two entries into the futile genre to see if we can understand why Hollywood keeps beating their heads against this wall and if they’ll ever break through. It’s “Everly” (2014) vs. “Peppermint” (2018) in a battle between adolescent annoyance and grownup incompetence.
Is this female empowerment of exploitation? I can't tell anymore.
“Everly” is the sort of film Quentin Tarantino would make it he didn’t care about dialog…or music…or feet…and had been shot in the head with a small caliber handgun where the bullet lodged in his brain and medical science couldn’t remove it without killing him. If Tarantino is a derivative genius drawing inspiration from dubious source material, “Everly” screenwriter Yale Hannon and director Joe Lynch are derivative morons drawing inspiration from that derivative genius. To put it a more confusing way, they’re imitating an imitator without understanding what he’s imitating or why he’s doing it.
Everly (Salma Hayek) is a woman who was kidnapped years ago by the sort of all-powerful crime boss who only exists in movies and held captive as his love slave in an apartment building with an assortment of other women who appear to be prostitutes and not love slaves, which is the sort of problematic premise typical of inferior Tarantino wannabes. Everly isn’t kept chained up in a basement. She lives in an apartment bigger and nicer than where 99% of people live in the real world and she’s surrounded by other women who are seemingly willing whores. The only assumption the audience can make is that Everly is also a willing whore. But she’s not. She’s a normal woman dragged into a life of sexual servitude.
And then this happened.
Now, that could have been an interesting twist to the story. Let viewers think they’re watching one kind of story with one kind of character, then surprise them with how everything they know is wrong. Except this movie is oblivious to the ginormous emotional and practical differences between being a professional prostitute and an imprisoned love slave. These filmmakers do not understand that a woman who voluntarily has sex for money is not the same as a woman forced to do it against her will. There is a tidal wave of interesting creative directions that could flow out of that difference but only if you understand those two things are not the same. “Everly” doesn’t comprehend that.
Anyway, Everly tries to betray her super evil boss to the cops but he finds out and the entire movie is Everly stuck in her apartment, killing all the people who are sent to kill her. If you’re the sort of unambitious mouth-breather who enjoys watching pointless brutality and murder on screen, I suppose this movie wouldn’t be a complete waste of your time. It spends far too long not killing people to truly entertain you but there’s enough violence, including a detour into torture porn, to keep you occupied for a while. Be warned, though. Hayek does not get completely naked in this thing. There’s a bit of a butt shot and that’s it.
Do modern filmmakers not understand basic physics, or do they just not care?
For the better adjusted in the audience, “Everly” is an aggravating slog. It’s ugly and dumb, and treats pain, misery, and death like set ups for a punch line that never comes. The star switches from helpless female to a member of Seal Team Six and back whenever the script requires. Poor Salma Hayek is left completely out to sea. She clearly has no idea what kind of movie she’s in or what kind of performance she’s supposed to be giving. The film broadcasts a perpetual smirk over how cool edgy it thinks it is while it’s actually nothing more than a retread of a retread of material that normal people stop snickering about when they’re old enough to see how much money the federal government withholds from their first paycheck.
“Peppermint” takes an early advantage in this Throwdown because it was made by adults. Not made very well, mind you, but the people behind it at least knew what a revenge flick is, how they’re supposed to work, and why people like them. Understanding something and being able to do it are separate things. I know how to dribble and shoot a basketball. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to join the roster of the Boston Celtics.
"Now, you know and I know where the other end of this cord is. Let's leave the audience in suspense."
This motion picture is about Riley North (Jennifer Garner), a woman whose husband and child were slain by a Latino drug gang, and her quest for vengeance. It opens with an action scene, like most screenwriting books tell you to do, and it’s a damn good thing because Riley killing a guy is followed by a ludicrously long and boring flashback of how Riley’s family wound up dead. The flashback just kept going and going and going until I wondered if it was going to last the whole film and end with the opening scene. It finally concludes with Jennifer Garner in the worst haircut any actress may have ever had in the history of cinema and jumps back to the present where Riley has become this super-competent vigilante, like The Punisher from Marvel Comics or Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan, The Executioner.
And this is probably the best example of how “Peppermint” was made by adults but not made very well. When law enforcement figures out Riley is behind a new killing spree of criminals, there’s a discussion of how it doesn’t make any sense. Massacred family or not, suburban moms simply don’t magically transform themselves into omni-proficient slaughter machines capable of evading arrest, comprehensive surveillance of extensive criminal operations, and single-handedly killing enough guys to make up a football team. When that discussion came up, I thought it was the start of a plot thread where we’d find out Riley was some kind of CIA assassin or something who retired to start a family.
To get in the right frame of mind for this scene, she just had to think about when Ben told her she would never be Batgirl.
But after this incongruity is brought up, it is never mentioned again. There is no explanation ever offered for how Riley went from mom to murder-master. The people who made “Peppermint” were smart enough to know some of the audience would wonder about that, so they had some characters talk about it to prove the filmmakers were as smart as the audience…but then they forgot to explain how it happened. I’m not talking about another endless flashback. Just anything to justify how Riley goes from someone who loses a parking lot spat to another girl scout mom to an unstoppable force for justice. It’s almost like they’re trying to imply that Riley is Jennifer Garner’s character from her old TV show “Alias” but they’re legally prohibited from explicitly referencing it in any way.
You can sum up “Peppermint” by saying it hits all the right notes but never cleanly or even in the right order. Four of her first six revenge kills happen off screen. We don’t even get to see Riley snuff two of the men who actually gunned down her husband and daughter because the film wants to hurry on to her conflict with the crime boss who ordered the hit and his army of anonymous and ethnic bullet-stoppers. The movie’s ending involves Riley giving herself up to stop the bad guys from shooting an innocent girl, but the girl and Riley had literally no interaction before that. There were no previous scenes showing how the girl reminded Riley of her lost daughter or the girl trying to persuade Riley to stop hurting people. They hadn’t said a single word to each other on screen until Riley sacrifices herself for the girl’s sake. The filmmakers knew that was an appropriate ending for this kind of flick but they didn’t make any of the narrative moves through the story to give that ending any significance.
Did somebody think they were doing a Holocaust movie?
Garner makes out a lot better than Hayek as far as her own performance. She’s allowed to spend most of the film playing Riley as a damaged survivor, with only one big scene where suddenly shifts into being a wisecracking bad ass. The action sequences in “Peppermint” are also generally better executed, primarily because they don’t have to work around the everything-happens-in-one-room conceit of “Everly.”
Hollywood keeps trying to create the Female Action Star for two basic reasons. One is the unfairness of age. Hayek was 48 when she made “Everly” and Garner is 46 in “Peppermint.” In real life, plenty of men would still be chasing after both ladies. In movies, however, both women are too old to play a lot of the parts that make up the bulk of an actresses career. When male actors are too old to play the hot young lead but not old enough to play the father figure supporting character, they can make action movies where it doesn’t really matter how old they are as long as they can still kick some butt. With the decline in normal storytelling, we’ve even seen action movie stardom for men extended well into their dotage. Liam Neeson was 62 when he did the last “Taken” movie and there are still plans for a fifth Indiana Jones movie with Harrison Ford, who is currently 76!
The other reason for the quest for the Female Action Star is the theory that action flicks could be even more successful if more women would watch them. Action flicks are a little like horror flicks in that it’s not that hard to follow the formula and produce something non-terrible while keeping the budget under control. But while horror movies tend to appeal to both genders, especially among the young, action movies are primarily a guy thing. The futility of trying to change that by putting women in lead action roles, however, is demonstrating by looking at the world of sports.
"I'm telling you, if you mention 'Elektra' one more time..."
Outside of gymnastics and figure skating during the Olympics, most female sports attract dramatically fewer viewers than male sports. The LPGA and WNBA are entirely dwarfed by their XY chromosome counterparts. And women’s sports don’t struggle to gain an audience because men don’t watch them. They struggle because women don’t watch them. Whether you want to blame nature or nurture, boys and girls plainly seem to like different things.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t women who love football and watching people get shot in the face as much as any dude. There are. But it appears that women generally don’t like action flicks as much as men and putting a woman in the hero role instead of the victim for the hero to save or the sex object for male viewers to drool over isn’t going to change that.
As for the Throwdown, both of these films as bad but “Peppermint” gets the win for not having the greasy pseudo-nihilistic sheen of “Everly.” It’s not much…but it’s something.
A preview of the entertainment at Harvey Weinstein's next birthday party.
Written by Yale Hannon.
Directed by Joe Lynch.
Starring Salma Hayek, Hiroyuki Watanbe, Laure Cepeda, Togo Igawa, Aki Kotabe, Gabriella Wright, Caroline Chikezie, Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, Jelena Gavrilovic, Aisha Ayamah, Masashi Fujimoto and James Owen.
Written by Chad St. John.
Directed by Pierre Morel.
Starring Jennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr., John Ortiz, Juan Pablo Raba, Annie Ilonzeh, Jeff Hephner, Eddie Shin, Method Man, Tyson Ritter, Kyla-Drew, and Ian Casselberry.