Sunday, July 21, 2024

Mediocrity is The Real ‘Trigger Warning’

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In theory, watching Jessica Alba kick ass for an hour and forty-eight minutes sounds like a perfect way to spend a Friday evening. Sadly, in practice, it’s a bit of a chore despite the glimpses of a better movie that peek through. It is, yet another example, of the importance of having a decent script.

The script has three writers, and having seen Trigger Warning I am convinced that neither of them ever talked with the other. John Brancato, Josh Olson, and Halley Gross take a tried and true story of low-budget American action movies and turn it into an incomprehensible, grating, and dull movie that feels like they filmed the second draft. It’s a type of movie so dumb that it references Chuck Norris when it should have referenced Cynthia Rothrock.

Heck, Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” series is basically this trope over and over and it never gets old. But as Trigger Warning discovers, Child only makes it look easy.

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Parker (Jessica Alba) in one of her few bad ass moments

Mouly Surya’s English language debut has more than a little in common with Rothrock’s classic China O’Brien. The problem is that China O’Brien is a bad movie made by Rober Clouse that I own and treasure for its cheesiness, incompetency, and love of Rothrock. Surya however isn’t a bad director despite Trigger Warning being a bad movie.

Now, according to Wikipedia the plot of Trigger Warning is about a traumatized Special Forces commando named Parker (Alba) who returns home after her father dies and does battle with the local gang who may or may not have killed him. This is more or less accurate though it feels like they’re stretching the definition of “a gang” a bit. But I was more surprised to find out that Alba’s Parker was supposed to be traumatized.

I’m currently reading an Elmore Leonard book. One of the things I love about Leonard’s dialogue is how he shows the different degrees of people are both smart and dumb. However, the script for Trigger Warning only shows us how dumb everybody is, especially the so-called smart people. 

Parker makes deductions but Surya does a clumsy job of illustrating Parker’s thought process. She’ll make observations that anyone would make but because everyone else is so unobservant, the mere fact that she pays attention, makes her seem like Sherlock Holmes. Trigger Warning makes the age-old mistake of making its main character smart by making everyone else not smart.

Trigger Warning spends the first half of the film setting up pieces for a chess game it never plays. Instead, characters and incidents that happen later end up having more consequences than anything during the beginning. But worse is how revelations, big and small mean nothing.

On the one hand, I’m happy to see both Alba and Surya allowing Parker to exist as a sexual being. There’s no actual sex scene, but we get a before and a fade to after. It’s with her ex, Jesse (Mark Webber), and also Sherriff. He’s also the son of the slimy Senator Ezeila Swann (Anthony Michael Hall). 

On the other hand, this scene is curiously forgotten or at least underplayed, when it is revealed that Jesse has betrayed Parker. The anger she shows for Jesse upon the reveal is more of a friend and not of an ex-lover and longtime confidant. Then again it could be Alba’s performance which is as inconsistent as everything else in Trigger Warning.

Alba’s Parker is stoic, to say the least. But while at times Alba does a good job portraying the daughter grieving her father, she’s let down by the script. But at times her line delivered feels odd such as when she says, “If I find out he’s behind my father’s death, I’m going to be so pissed.” I’m willing to say that that line was meant to be sarcastic, but in Alba’s hands the line comes off flat belies the lack of depth the dialogue has. 

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Ezekiel (Anthony Michael Hall), Jesse (Mark Webber), and Parker (Alba) have a fireside chat.

The dialogue is so stilted that it feels as if other lines have been cut. Take the scene where Parker is having dinner with her ex Jesse, and his father Ezikel Swann. Webber hangs in the background while Alba and Hall have what is meant to be a strained conversation. But in reality, plays out as if the script is missing lines. Trigger Warning has Hall’s Ezekiel spew Conservative talking points to show he’s a bad guy while Alba sits idly by and simply rolls her eyes.

It’s a kind of scene that could show how intelligent the characters are, and how they tick. The kind with a good script, displays the character’s psychology and comment on the current political landscape. Instead, like so many scenes of Trigger Warning, it feels incomplete.

Hall does his best as the slimy well-to-do good old boy from, Ezekiel. “Power over policy. That’s what’s popular today.” Among all the performances he is the best. But like all the others, he’s hobbled by the muddled script.

However, I did appreciate how Surya and the writers attempted to show the difference between Eziekel’s brand of white supremacy conservatism and Ghost (Kawai Lyman) a Timothy Mcveigh type. Surya and the script even try to put the two in contrast in the form of Elvis Swann (Jake Weary), the black sheep of the Swann family. Though considering how rotten all the Swanns are, he’s more just a typical sheep. Trigger Warning fouls the ball, but the swing is still appreciated. 

Part of the problem is Lyman’s Ghost is talked about a lot but is rarely seen. Even when it becomes clear he’s the big bad guy behind other bad guys he feels insignificant to the story. Especially when they kill him off and there’s still twenty minutes to go.

Trigger Warning is a movie that names itself after a popular conservative insult and has Alba say to her Special Ops partner Spider (Tone Bell), “How’s it going damsel in distress?” To say it is irritating at times is an understatement. It would have done better to have Eziekel be merely slimy and corrupt because neither the script nor Surya seems to have any real desire to wade into any kind of discourse outside of citing phrases and memes. Not to mention say anything about how Parker was trained to fight terrorists overseas while ignoring the ones in her own backyard.

Surya does her best to try and make Alba look like a Special Forces Op commando. I’m not one of those who think every action hero needs to have ripped to the nines to be convincing. Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood were hardly muscle-bound action stars. It’s about the gravitas and the presence; both of which Alba is lacking.

Or more to the point, Surya fails to use the camera to imbibe Alba with those qualities. The editing by Chris Tonick and Robert Grigsby Wilson does a respectable job of trying to sell Alba’s punches and kicks. Yes, there are times when it’s clear the bad guy is waiting for the punch. But I’m okay with that, China O’Brien had scenes where people went flying despite Rothrock’s fist coming nowhere near them. 

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Parker (Alba) and Spider (Tone Bell) talk about terrorists.

The difference is Rothrock is an actual Martial arts fighter and holds herself like one. Say what you will about Clouse’s direction, he frames Rothrock like the movie star she should have been. Surya Zoe White’s camera let Alba down. There are scenes where Alba is playing cat and mouse and she seems to be slouching. 

Perhaps it’s her clothes which do her no favors and like everything else in Trigger Warning, they are drab and lifeless. Still, moments like these make Alba seem less of a badass and more just bad.

White and Surya compound problems by making the town of Creation seem so shapeless. There’s no geography to the town. Parker’s father owned a restaurant, Maria’s, outside of an abandoned mine, which he turned into a mancave and a tourist attraction. Except the distance between Maria’s and the mine at times seems to be half a mile and at others a few hundred feet. 

Surya and White even have a scene with Alba atop the mine looking over the town but since it’s merely CGI, it’s not interested in giving us a sense of location. So it’s hard to tell where anyplace or anyone is to each other. 

A vital element considering, at the core of Trigger Warning is a mystery. Or there is before Surya and the script gives up and turns into an action movie. Trigger Warning time and time again can’t figure out what it wants to be.

Consider this: Towards the end, Alba’s Parker confronts Hall’s Eziekel. She’s killed all his guards, his house is aflame, and he’s tied to a chair as she stalks towards him wielding a knife. (The fact that she wields a knife more than a gun is a bit puzzling considering her Special Ops background.) As she draws nearer to Hall we see he’s been beaten and our observant hero sees he’s been tied to a chair and demands he explains himself.

Surya then cuts to Alba in a truck with Spider. She tells us what happened. We don’t even see her kill him! Or hear what he says. Surya literally tells instead of shows. Rothrock would NEVER.

Few things zap the joy out of bad movies like a base level of competency and proficiency. It means there are fewer wild swings, fewer moments of outsized ego, and frankly playing it safe at every turn. Yet, there are moments in Trigger Warning where I get a sense of Surya begging to go off the chain.

Yet, there are moments in Trigger Warning that come close to unbridled goofy. The secret passageway behind the washing machine that leads to an underground weed farm is a prime example. Or finding out the bartender has a cadre of guns in the back. For crying out loud one scene has Alba choking a guy out with the handles of a bolt-cutter. It’s not like there aren’t pebbles of a good time sprinkled throughout Trigger Warning. But they only serve to highlight what a safe, tame, in-field foul the movie ends up.

It is said the spec script for Trigger Warning was a woman-led version of First Blood and John Wick. Now that’s the movie they should have made. Instead, they made Trigger Warning. Bummer.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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