Triggered (Topakk) (2023)

Triggered (Topakk) had its international première on Sat 26th Aug at FrightFest

“Somewhere in the Philippine jungle”, a close-knit Bravo commando unit comes under attack from “notorious religious militant cult the Papa Sagrada.” After being temporarily dazed by an explosion, the unit’s captain Miguel Vergara (Arjo Atayde) regains consciousness only to witness all his captured comrades being decapitated, and so, in a vengeful rage of berserker bloodlust, he single-handedly takes out all the enemy. He is the sole survivor of the incident. 

If this is the primal scene of Richard Somes’ Triggered (Topakk), it also sets the tone for the rest of the movie. For Miguel may have returned to the city and to civilian life – but for him, still plagued with nightmares, survivor’s guilt and classic PTSD symptoms, the war has never ended, and the whole world is hell. Indeed, this is like Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock (1984) relocated to the Philippines, with the mean streets of North Manila substituting for New York’s urban jungle.

As the taciturn Miguel does his first nightshift as security guard at a large warehouse complex, he finds himself playing reluctant host to two trespassers: Weng Diwata (Julia Montes) and her injured brother Bogs (Kokoy De Santos). These two are fleeing an “Anti-Narcotics Underground Operation Unit”, led by tough ex-military family man Romero (Sid Lucero), which has just carried out an extra-legal massacre of a narcotics gang, and – under orders from the Mayor (Anne Feo) to leave no evidence trail that might lead back to her – is now looking to take out the only two surviving witnesses. Yet this kill squad is not reckoning on the presence of a highly skilled ‘lone wolf’ who is easily triggered to violent action, and has nothing left to live for.

“Make sure you keep an eye on everything here,” Miguel is told by his new boss at the warehouse, who adds ominously (as though privy to the screenplay from Jim Flores and Will Fredo): “Everything’s flammable and explosive – this place will turn into a blazing inferno.” Amid all the heavy pipes and gas canisters, flame throwers and industrial saws, this place is a shadowy deathtrap in which Miguel will use conventional guns and blades, as well as his bare fists and whatever else happens to be at hand (including, in one particularly inventive fight, a simple flashlight) against all comers, even as his assailants find themselves betrayed by their own and having to face a second, even more ruthless kill squad. 

Accordingly Triggered is a little like John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988), a little like Gareth Evans’ The Raid (2011), and even a little like Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire (2016), as its initially simple seeming premise escalates and ramifies into a swirling chaos of cross purposes, and everyone gets caught in the ricochet with accumulating injuries. The brutality here is also steadily amplified, with ever more scenes showing gory corporeal damage in keeping as much with a horror movie as an action flick.

Here characters are bludgeoned, burnt and broken with wincingly nasty abandon – and if the dialogue is perfunctory and the plotting a little clichéd, the fights just go harder and harder. And let’s not forget that, no matter how fanciful the film’s political powerplays might seem to outsiders, Rodrigo Duterte really did rise from Mayor of Davao City to President of the Philippines (2016-22) on an aggressive anti-drug platform, with open praise for extrajudicial killings and alleged personal links to the death squads that executed them. Here, the state of endless war to which Miguel’s trauma has condemned him is also the state of a nation, as Somes shows everyone trapped together in the same vicious hell.

strap: Richard Somes’ action survival feature places a PTSD-afflicted veteran in the middle of an extrajudicial War on Drugs

© Anton Bitel