How ‘Trigger Warning’ Tweaks the Military Revenge Thriller for a New Era

Netflix’s “Trigger Warning” is the kind of sturdy thriller that recalls movies from “First Blood” and “Commando” to the early John Cena vehicle “The Marine” and the 2004 remake of “Walking Tall”: a military veteran returns home, looking for peace, only to face violent antagonists who force him back into action.

The difference is that in “Trigger Warning,” the veteran is a woman (Jessica Alba), and the voice behind the camera is female also, as Indonesian director Mouly Surya makes her English-language debut. It’s not just Surya’s first American project after a series of acclaimed films in her home country but also her first action movie. As she told IndieWire, Surya was determined to deliver the traditional satisfactions of the genre while also exploring what it meant to have a woman in a role typically occupied by actors like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and The Rock.

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“I think from the get-go, I wanted a more intimate style of fighting,” Surya said. To that end, she leaned into the idea of Alba using a knife as her character Parker’s weapon of choice. “If you want to kill a guy with a gun, you can be six feet away, but with the kind of blade that Jessica has throughout the film, you have to be very close to your enemy.”

Alba’s proficiency with the knife not only infuses her odyssey of revenge with a greater intimacy and more personal touch but makes the action more convincing. It’s a skill Aba acquired over months of training and incorporated into her preexisting martial arts practice — she’s proficient in Taekwondo and Krav Maga, both previously on display in “Mechanic: Resurrection” — and her talent with the blade is an equalizer that makes it plausible for her to outfight men throughout “Trigger Warning.”

Surya conceptualized the action sequences with fight coordinator Eric Brown, a member of 87Eleven, the famed stunt company behind some of the best action movies of the last 10 years (most notably, the “John Wick” franchise).

TRIGGER WARNING, director Mouly Surya (center), on set, 2024. ph: Karen Kuehn / © Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Trigger Warning’ director Mouly Surya on set©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

“In our first meeting, he asked me how I wanted to film the action,” Surya said, noting that she wanted the camerawork to give the audience a subjective experience so that they would emotionally connect with Alba’s character. “I wanted the camera to move and stay with her throughout the film, with a more continuous approach to the choreography as opposed to cutting it into small pieces.”

This kind of design was perfectly tuned to Brown’s sensibility, and together, the filmmakers conceived of the knife and martial arts fights as set pieces with rhythms and movement owing as much to ballet and musicals as to the visual grammar of “Rambo” movies.

More influences emerged organically as Surya and Brown continued their conversations during prep. “He was amazing in terms of giving me a lot of options for each fight,” Surya said. “Obviously, there’s a Western vibe, and we incorporated a lot of Indonesian martial arts as well.”

Surya also selected an Indonesian machete as the weapon with which Parker does most of her damage in the film’s later scenes, another connection between the movie and Surya’s heritage. It was one of many, many blades the prop department presented her with throughout the shoot. “I think I’ve seen enough knives to last me the rest of my life,” Surya said.

In addition to devising a unique fighting style for Alba, Surya wanted her to have a distinctive look — one that reflected Parker’s strength and military training while showcasing Alba’s femininity.

“I didn’t want the short-haired tomboy look you see so often,” Surya said. “I started looking at pictures of soldiers from the Norwegian and Swedish armies and found the women very interesting; they had long, braided blonde hair, and I liked that they could be both female and strong.”

TRIGGER WARNING, Jessica Alba (right), 2024. ph: Ursula Coyote / © Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection
Jessica Alba in ‘Trigger Warning,’ ph: Ursula Coyote / © Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

Surya and her costume designer, Samantha Hawkins, worked with Alba to create a look that would express the character’s duality: “For her final look, she’s wearing her dad’s jacket but also a flowery top. I didn’t want the audience to ever forget that she’s a woman, but it’s not a woman through a man’s lens — it’s through a woman’s lens.”

Surya’s eye is most impressive in “Trigger Warning” for the variety she brings to the various action sequences, from spaces open and vast (such as the opening scene set in Syria) to constricted and interior (the underground tunnels in Parker’s hometown). One of the director’s favorite locations, and the source of the film’s most entertaining action sequence, was a hardware store that enabled Surya to tap into her inner Jackie Chan.

“I tried to adopt an Asian style of fighting there where the characters are just using what’s available, turning everyday stuff into unconventional weapons,” she said.

Although Surya described working with an American crew and producers as “a real fish out of water experience,” she loved the opportunity “Trigger Warning” gave her to flex her action muscles. “There was a little blood and gore in my previous film, but not to this extent. I was really excited to make something with American resources that I could never have made back home.”

“Trigger Warning” is now streaming on Netflix.

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