Caution: Trigger Warning May Be Hazardous to Your Health

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Caution: Trigger Warning May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Syria is nine hours ahead of New Mexico, where Trigger Warning’s small-town setting was shot. Noon in Damascus is 3 AM in Albuquerque. When could a New Mexican sheriff, in broad daylight, successfully call a special ops soldier—also in broad daylight, in the middle of the Syrian desert (which must have excellent cell service)—on her personal phone? As bonus credit, please identify all three war crimes committed by the heroes before the title card hits. I’m sorry to begin my review with a word problem, but this movie’s problems extend beyond its words. The veteran-comes-home revenger Trigger Warning is thoroughly idiotic and deathly slow, filled with so much ugly camp that it could stand in as the first Lifetime Original action movie.

But, really, Trigger Warning slots nicely into the tier below Netflix’s roster of fake blockbusters, beefing up its fake B-movie catalog with 100 minutes of half-hearted sleaze. The vehicles for this sleaze include that special ops soldier, Parker (Jessica Alba), and her high school ex, Sheriff Jesse (Mark Webber). Jesse ruptured the space-time continuum to give his old flame a call because her dad died in a cave-in and she needs to come sort out his affairs. She also needs to come sort out the affairs of Jesse’s family, led by his father, Senator Ezekiel Swann (Anthony Michael Hall). With a name like that, you know Swann runs on a platform of “freedom, family, and faith” and has at least one good-for-nothing son. That’d be Jesse’s brother Elvis (Jake Weary), whose character traits are Racist and Mullet (one of which is the show-don’t-tell version of the other). Swann and his clan all but own Parker’s rundown hometown of Creation, nestled in Swann County.

As we can surmise from all this Scooby-Doo scene-setting, all is not well in Creation under the thumb of the Swanns. This is confirmed when Parker visits the scene of her dad’s death, deep in his literal man cave. Parker’s super-soldier skillset is mostly confined to stabbing folks with a knife, but this scene gives her one more ludicrous talent: She notices that one of the caved-in rocks bears the telltale markings (I guess) of being blown up by a grenade. Foul play is afoot, and Parker’s revenge tour begins in earnest.

Indonesian filmmaker Mouly Surya (making her English-language debut) never quite massages Trigger Warning into the neo-Western subgenre that so clearly inspired it—the one where a hardened veteran returns home to find their quaint town infested by crooks, their small-town values corrupted by greed and innocence brutalized by violence. We barely see Creation’s townsfolk, and the three screenwriters (John Brancato, Josh Olson, Halley Gross) keep switching up the stakes beyond the obvious Swann oligarchy. Parker’s vendetta is deeply personal, yet keeps slipping away from her monotone performance, the plodding action and the script’s sloppy ideas.

If Trigger Warning simply dealt with Parker’s relationship with the Swann clanencompassing her past-and-present sexual relationship with Jesse, her longtime animosity with Elvis and her disdain for the powerful Ezekiel—it could find elegance in that straightforward structure. This is the film Webber thinks he’s in, one where Jesse’s psychosexual relationship with Parker informs all his choices and is a driving force of the movie. He tries to underplay his underwritten role, attempting to revert his middle-aged lawman back to his high school days whenever he softly speaks to her. But he’s alone out there, a lone chemical trying to spark a reaction. Jesse and Parker talk through each other, two whispery blanks who couldn’t burn for each other if they were having a Zoolander-style gasoline fight. Jesse comes off like a stunted little kid, and Parker comes off as a newly programmed robot.

But the movie tires of itself and its established villains quickly, moving its own goalposts to a new set of baddies: A group of domestic terrorists, purchasing stolen weapons from Elvis, as faceless as the Syrians Parker’s team were murdering earlier. As Parker starts killing, it becomes clear that, unlike so many movies with military heroes, Trigger Warning isn’t a rah-rah flag-waver. Army depot guys are selling to unscrupulous gunrunners in broad daylight, after all. 

It’s actually a libertarian fantasy, filled with weed-growing, gun-toting, red-blooded Americans of all stripes. Everyone in Creation is armed to the teeth, pulling grenades out of junk drawers and high-caliber rifles from behind their bar tops. And Trigger Warning is absurdly unconcerned with mortality: For example, Parker calls in a lawyer, who is quickly murdered off-screen and never mentioned or thought of by anyone ever again. It’s always telling what films a movie embeds within itself; here, a character watches a clip of Chuck Norris’ revisionist Vietnam thriller Missing in Action 2: The Beginning.

But at least Norris had a reputation for action. Trigger Warning is filled with padding. That manifests in individual shots, like a lingering stare as tears roll down Parker’s cheeks, and in whole scenes. Parker’s mission comes equipped with a few human tools: Spider (Tone Bell), a hacker from her squad, and Mike (Gabriel Basso), a bartender from her dad’s pub. They exist as problem-solvers and scene partners for when we screech to a halt and watch someone talk on the phone or sit at a laptop. Trigger Warning’s celebratory denouement not only has someone use a laptop while talking on the phone, but all of this occurs while getting gas. Let your action heroes run their errands on their own time.

When the film actually allows itself to be an action movie, the fights trudge through invisible molasses. You’d think there’d be a  certain appeal to watching Jessica Alba stab a bunch of Todd Snyder cowboy cosplayers, but each combatant looks like they’re trying to remember the steps to that one ballroom dance class they took in college. And it’s all hand-to-hand: Parker’s a Knife Guy, a fact that gets its own piece of flashback backstory (her dead dad gave her that knife!), which means Trigger Warning often sounds like a Three Musketeers movie, every swing and swipe schwinging through the air no matter how the context.

And there are only a handful of these brawls—even Parker’s showdown with the Senator happens off-screen, simply an excuse for Alba to growl “Why are politicians such liars?” It’s a real “this food is terrible, and such small portions!” situation, but I’d much rather have watched Hall deliver a bloviating bad guy speech than someone fill up their tank.

It doesn’t help that much of the film is shot in the murky dark of night or in dust-filled tunnels, those environments then doused in strong blue or orange tones that slop another coat of paint over our hopes of seeing what is actually going on. Amidst the mess are noticeably bad effects, cheaply integrated with the environment they’re virtually blowing up, exacerbated by an intensely shallow focus on the actors. This makes the foreground so distractingly blurry that Trigger Warning can look like a point-and-click video game, where the interactable objects are rendered separately from the background.

Trigger Warning doesn’t even have the crass decency to live up to its own alt-right stand-up special title. It’s too boring, too haphazardly written to even entertain a hate-watcher. It’s not suspenseful, it’s not clever and it’s not funny—unless you count the moment when one of the heroes, who is in a movie premised upon an explosion-driven cave-in, fires an RPG while inside that same cave…which promptly caves in on him. You might file Trigger Warning away as one of those Netflix Originals that hits number-one on the service by autoplaying in the background, but for those of us obliged to actually watch it in full like, it’s a film that makes a strong case for clicking on that tantalizing “playback speed” button. Watching Trigger Warning at 1.5x speed wouldn’t make it any better, but at least it would mean that one part of Netflix was functioning as intended.

Director: Mouly Surya
Writer: John Brancato, Josh Olson, Halley Gross
Starring: Jessica Alba, Anthony Michael Hall, Mark Webber, Jake Weary, Tone Bell
Release Date: June 21, 2024 (Netflix)

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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