Locarno 2023 Review: In TRIGGERED (TOPAKK), A Salute To The Brave And Beleagured With Brutal Action Bombast
Triggered (Topakk) screened this week following its Out Of Competition World Premiere at the 76th edition of the Locarno Film Festival
Post-traumatic stress disorder is always helpful in constructing an underdog character in a genre film setting. It can provide a wealth of nuance and subtle context to the creation of a protagonist – particularly one suited for a film or TV show of the action or horror variety. For me, the best execution of this has to be First Blood, Ted Kotcheff’s own 1982 personification a la Sylvester Stallone, minted perfectly for the story of a tormented ex-soldier, home from the Vietnam war and subsequently coerced through the sadistic physical and emotional torment of a local sheriff and his men into reliving the horrors of combat, hence forced to wage a new one in American suburbia.
Indeed, the inaugural franchise starter would root itself in the action genre for its model presentation of beefcake action heroics ripe for the eighties, as well as its indelible anti-war tropes. As it stands though, war remains a concurrent theme to this day, as the business of war continues to be the inevitable page turner in countries around the world in nearly any volume; Bear in mind the ancillary nature of secret anti-drug death squads as ample source material for crime thriller cinema, particularly for directors in the Philippines. Nowadays, it is the avenue in which filmmaker Richard Somes (We Will Not Die Tonight) squarely places his newest action movie, Triggered (Topakk), wherein his incarnation for the obligatory tortured war hero arrives in the form of celebrated local TV and film actor, Arjo Atayde.
The first ten minutes or more is all you need to learn just how ambitiously violent Triggered is, namely in its inherent homage to old school action – something Somes himself has talked up in recent interviews. It’s a film that plays well on Somes’s strengths, particularly on matters of production design which longtime film cohort Erik Matti (On The Job, BuyBust) knows and has acknowledged. That’s on the film’s overall look and visual tone, whereas dramatization and character development tend to overlap one another at times.
For that analysis, we start with a look at Atayde, whose performance as Miguel lends well to Somes’ casting of an ex-soldier-cum-everyman now struggling to survive from sunrise to sunset. Miguel’s trauma stems from being the sole survivor of a deadly jungle attack that resulted in him witnessing the gruesome murders of his unit, including his best friend, and the inconsolable rage that fueled his one-man army assault on the terrorists who ambushed them; It’s worth noting that Miguel’s torment is more to do with how his best friend dies than what I encompass in my explanation, which is what will grip you the most.
The carnage still echoes in Miguel’s head a year later, and that certainly goes for the day of his latest job interview as an armed night time security guard for an abandoned metal yard full of flammable components. To make matters worse, as if the internalized nightmares of war and death weren’t enough, his best friend’s widow is still grieving to the point where she wants nothing to do with him, and won’t even let him see her son. Ouch. And, you can believe that things will worsen before they get anywhere near better.
That story pivot then brings us to the moment Weng (Julia Montes) gives chase to her brother Bogs (Kokoy De Santos) and his friend who are both running for their lives from a gangster they’ve just stolen money from – a gangster who has no compunction about making an example out of someone in broad daylight. Weng, eager to save her more impetuous brother’s life, joins him in an opportunity to make things right by transporting some rather unsavory goods for a local drug cartel later that night. Does the job goes as planned? Well, not if you want more movie.
Before the cartel knows it, an anti-drug death squad led by Romero (Sid Lucero) posing as the head a criminal outfit, infiltrates the cartel’s operations at a funeral home housing the carcasses stuffed with drugs. As the guns start going off with Weng and Bogs trapped two stories up, the two have no choice but to duck and cover until they can jump their way to safety. Of course, that can’t happen without scrapping a little, and ultimately they end up nailing Romero’s loose cannon, Aquinta (Cholo Barretto), wounding him and setting off a precursor to an even more harrowing night than they hoped for.
With nowhere left to run and Bogs seriously injured, the desperate pair break into the metal yard where Miguel so happens to be thriving on his first night of work. And by thriving, I mean barely managing to pull himself away from eating a shotgun after yet another PTSD episode. The follow-up shot sees Weng and Bogs confronted by Miguel emerging from the silhouette of an overhead spotlight with said shotgun aimed discriminately at the pair with the most stern, menacing air of silent caution you can possibly imagine, before finally realizing the two don’t mean any harm after a brief intro by Weng explaining their situation.
The massacre at the cartel outfit soon reveals the involvement of another posse as well as the Mayor (Anne Feo) who gravely wants her name distanced in the press, while she and local law enforcement insist on painting the incident as a mere scrimmage between rival gangs. Meanwhile, it’s only a matter of time before Miguel finds himself enveloped in the anarchy when Aquinta and his men tresspass their way into the metal yard with guns pointed. The odds are firmly against Bogs and Weng, and Miguel who relents after trying to hold his own, when more members of the death squad soon arrive, resulting in more violent upheaval that causes Miguel to unravel yet again.
Alas, you can guess as much that this leads to the portentous disarming and dismantling of several of Romero’s men in a matter of seconds as Miguel razes the room with guns blazing, using one corpse as a human shield. The explosive manhunt then begins for Miguel and Weng whose only option is to survive the night no matter what, and invariably, that also includes the entrenched skullduggery from a member of Romero’s team with Aquinta’s cousin, Zarcon (Bernard Palanca) also leading a heavily-armed death squad of his own under the leadership of a man named Colonel Arturo (Levy Ignacio).
Front-to-back action and spectacle runs pretty high in Triggered as the centerpiece action fix it aspires to be. Centerstage, Atayde’s unassuming physical build – clashing with expectations only if you’re looking for an eidetic Stallone – only shores up his screen presence, substantiated by his deep-set voice and acting caliber that make him an otherwise solid choice for the role. His performance, per the script by Somes and co-scribes Will Fredo and Jim Flores, is more fleshed out and overwrought at times than the more subdued comparative predecessor, but that’s something to leave up to opinion, and what sorts of afflictions better suit your type of stoic and damaged hero.
Par for the course is Montes, whose role of Weng, by Miguel’s own deductions, is subject to the very fascimile of his own psychological afflictions. Her character is a former junkie thrust once again into a life she wanted nothing to do with, only to witness first hand the trauma and death she may have to play a part in if she’s to make it out alive, and boy does she fight. What often helps though is the occasional moment of reflection Miguel gets to have in mentoring Weng’s latest grapple with “war” and reality, condemning the “hell” she’s forced to live and pondering thoughts of unaliving herself as penance for not being able to protect the people she loves. It’s moments like these where within the duration of the movie, you realize that we never really see Miguel discuss his pain and perceptions of life and post-war turmoil as a man forced to live with mounting grief while finding a way to honor those he loved, allowing for a more brookable consumption of the drama at hand.
Considerably, the best part of Triggered, for better or worse, is the action, topped with an almost equal amount to CG blood to measure up to practical gore effects used. There are some nitpicks with choreography and execution, but they’re mostly worth overlooking for the plusses in the film’s overall spectacle. Between Miguel and Weng, a number of really painful things happen to the antagonists in this film if they’re not turned into Swiss cheese: There are chain-lynchings and immolations, and a variety of stabbings, while one poor schmuck gets gutted by a giant ass fan blade. Heads are either blown clean-off or half-off or get tenderized and bashed in by bump-stocks with splatters of CG-blood piled on, or sawed in half, or just plain crushed (like a truly gory re-enactment of the tête-à-tête between the T-800 and the T-100 in T2: Judgement Day), all topped off with the occasional slugfest. Doubles notwithstanding, you can tell when Atayde and Montes are visibly putting the work in amid the dirt, muck, grime and open flames, and it’s admirable and fun as hell with enough excitement to carry you from one screaming death scene to the next.
A few of the supporting aforementioned characters are never seen and heard from again after appearing a few times, which does leaves things feeling a tad unfinished than preferred by the time the end credits roll. Simultaneously however, you are more than welcome to ease yourselves in the concurrent motif that Triggered proffers to moviegoers if hardcore action movies are your thing. Though far from the resonance and thematic messaging that spawned vociferously into the stratosphere from the pages of David Morell’s classic novel, you get a movie that cosigns with a patriotic salute by Somes to the armed forces, as well as an unabashed crowdpleaser that nods accordingly to its target audience.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.