Jennifer Garner “showed extremely combative skills” filming ‘Peppermint,’ remembers Pierre Morel
Since the breakthrough success of the Neeson-led kidnapping drama Taken in 2008, the French director-cinematographer has made a name for himself in Hollywood by casting A-list actors in similarly dark and gritty action flicks. Penn starred in 2015’s spy drama The Gunman, while Garner played a grieving mother on a quest for vengeance in 2018’s Peppermint.
Now that Cena is joining the director’s action-packed cinematic universe with Freelance (in theaters now), Morel is uniquely qualified to answer the top question on audiences’ minds: If pitted against each other, which of these badass actors would win in hand-to-hand combat?
“That’s a tough one,” Morel, 59, tells PEOPLE with a laugh. “They’re all equal… I would not have them go against each other. The four of them would be quite something!”
Upon reflection, however, the filmmaker adds, “Maybe Jennifer Garner, actually.”
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Alongside Alison Brie, Christian Slater and Juan Pablo Raba, Cena leads Freelance as a former special forces operative hired as personal security on what turns out to be a dangerous mission amid a military coup. Morel calls the wrestler-turned-actor, 46, “a beast of a man, and so precise and so sharp.”
In an imagined face-off between Cena and the other stars he’s worked with, Morel says, “John, obviously physically, can do many things. He would probably be the strongest one because it was his job before, he's a wrestler, he's a fighter.”
“But,” he continues, “Jennifer showed extremely combative skills when we shot Peppermint.”
Garner, 51, told PEOPLE upon Peppermint’s 2018 release about playing a character who becomes “a machine,” as she put it.
“I did MMA skills, gun skills, knife skills. It was the connection to the physical that made me kind of understand her fight for her daughter,” the Daredevil alum said at the time. “The fact that she just says I’m a mom, I’m taking care of this and I’m going to do what I need to do. That, I’m inspired by.”
Freelance, written by Jacob Lentz, is more of an action-comedy than Morel’s previous screen work — a genre the director says Cena is distinctly suited for.
“He was born for this,” confirms Morel. “He has both the physicality and he is hilariously funny.”
Cena’s days as a professional wrestling champ prepared him for a career headlining action-packed films, he adds. Wrestlers “know how the show works and they know how to make fun of themselves.”
Who in Hollywood would Morel like to work with next? “There are so many fantastic actors who never had the chance, who never did action but [who] would be great for that," he answers. "Obviously, the more unexpected it is, the better it will work.”
Whoever he next gives a butt-kicking, likely vengeful role to, Morel says they’ll have to have the acting chops for drama as much as Neeson, Penn, Garner and Cena had. “It's not just about the action, it's about the character and the emotional connection we get with them. If it's just action for action's sake, it's not fun.”
Freelance is now playing in theaters.
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