Credit: Ursula Coyote/Netflix
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film Streaming Scene

Trigger Warning — Mouly Surya

June 24, 2024

If you watch Trigger Warning, Netflix’s latest big-budget action movie, with captions turned on, you may notice the phrase “terrorist, in Arabic” in the film’s opening scene. This commencement is set in the Middle East and utilizes violence against Arabic-speaking people as nothing more than an opportunity to catalog the combat skills of special agent Parker (Jessica Alba). The rest of the movie takes place in the small rural American town of Creation and is something of a cross between First Blood and an uninspiring murder mystery; Parker uses her superhuman fighting abilities to bring her father’s killer to justice and put an end to an illegal weapon trade operating out of the local military weapons depot. It has nothing to do with the live conflict of the opening or even the Middle East.

In some regards, the film’s willingness to use Arabic bodies as fodder for violent spectacle comes as a surprise from director Mouly Surya. Given her social context as an Indonesian director, it seems reasonable to wonder if someone from the world’s most populous Muslim country might approach the Middle East with a more generous eye, skeptical of the “reel bad Arab,” to borrow the title of Jack Shaheen’s book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Indonesians aren’t Arab, of course, and nor are all Arabs Muslim, which are of course important facts to acknowledge. But it’s this very binary that someone from Surya’s cultural location might be most adept at interrupting. Instead, she doubles down on the image of the Arab as a terrorist and nothing more: in a scene with such an ugly twist it might cause whiplash, Parker reprimands her fellow soldier for killing the captured Arab terrorists… except not because he’s violating the Geneva Conventions, but instead because it’s impossible to extract information out of dead bodies. If they were alive, they could still be tortured and thus knowledge could still be gained. This is how Trigger Warning introduces its designated “hero.”

The last few years of Netflix’s original action programming have been widely panned at best and culturally invisible at worst. Almost all of their mega-blockbusters developed with depthless pockets behind them never move any needles in any of the places that curate meaningful film-related discourse. (And this is coming from a critic belonging to the minority that actually enjoyed The Gray Man.) All things being equal, even the most generous of viewers won’t find much to marvel at beyond Alba’s impressively consistent mediocrity and a handful of not totally boring action scenes; the choreography jumps around between gritty and clean execution enough to keep the actual action interesting. But that can only work so well when everything surrounding the action does its very best to suffocate the stunt work. Parker rarely shows her face while kicking ass for obvious reasons, and none of the antagonists sustain enough arresting momentum to ever call Parker’s pending triumph into question. Flaws and all, the whole thing is still competent enough, but the issue is that every fight feels like what would be the third or fourth best fight in a much better movie and leaves the viewer waiting top tier action to arrive. It never does.

Trigger Warning also confuses politically. The personnel behind the film — an Indonesian female director, a female DP, a woman of color playing the lead — will likely turn away the most ill-intended of political conservatives, but there is actually something of a conservative twang in the air of Creation. The local authorities are corrupt, people coded as Muslim are terrorists, and several fights before the climax involve Parker protecting small businesses. At the same time, Surya shows some teeth by making the local politician Senator Ezekiel Swann (Anthony Michael Hall) a Christian nationalist, which carries obvious political packaging, and by putting a corrupt police force at the center of the small town problems that a woman of color sets out to correct. The easiest thing to do might be to chalk up Surya’s lack of familiarity as a non-native to the American political climate, but that lets screenwriters John Brancato (Terminator Salvation), Josh Olson (A History of Violence), and Halley Gross (Westworld) off far too easily.

Or, perhaps the images conjured by the film’s settings signify more than than is actually present in what might simply be a short-sighted, apolitical script: the military weapons depot, police station, Hispanic minority community, guns, etc. are all politically loaded images to American eyes, and how one employs these images and symbols will greatly influence how an American audience receives any intended discourse. The (accidental?) double entendre of the title says it all: the implication of a “trigger warning” will instantly make most Trumpers flee, while anything to do with guns, at least within real-life political context, will turn away your average liberal (as will the phrase “trigger warning” since its violent metaphor is no longer politically correct language; something like a “content advisory” would be more inclusive to liberal circles). All that’s left is the shell of a mediocre action film with a forgettable cast and lost politics. That’s a hard sell for viewers of any political persuasion.

DIRECTOR: Mouly Surya;  CAST: Jessica Alba, Mark Webber, Anthony Michael Hall, Tone Bell;  DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix;  STREAMING: June 21;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 26 min.