Written by: Max Brallier, Matthew McArdle
Directed by: Joe Begos
Starring: Stephen Lang, William Sadler, and Fred "The Hammer" Williamson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Right about now, I'm feeling real eager. So whatever you're gonna do, quit flapping your gums and do it. But when you come, boy, you come sharp. Because you make a mistake, I'm gonna cut your heart out."
Walter Reed (William Sadler) has a daily routine. Each morning, he hauls himself to his rusty, near-busted old truck and picks up his buddy Abe (Fred “The Hammer” Williamson). The goddamn bucket of bolts squeaks every inch of the way, giving aching voice to a vehicle that’s obviously seen a lot of miles. But damnit, it’s somehow still up and running, much like Walter, Abe, and the rest of the crew that gathers on a daily basis at the local VFW post. Even now, decades after their various tours of duty, they all carry themselves with the grizzled sense of resilience that ultimately defines VFW, the latest neon-splashed splatter effort from Joe Begos.
Arriving mere months after psychotronic freak-out Bliss, VFW finds Begos returning to a more lucid, visceral plane of storytelling with an old-fashioned siege movie. You know the drill with Begos by now: his work unabashedly looms in the shadows of his influences, so this one is essentially his Assault on Precinct 13 by way of The Warriors, only the heroes are played by venerable tough guy character actors. You might be tempted to lump The Expendables into the formula here, too, but I’m going to be real: Stallone and crew never quite figured out the pathos and camaraderie that makes VFW work as well as it does.
You can just feel the weary, lived-in ruggedness of the crew that gathers at this VWF post. It’s not just in the truck’s squeaking transmission or the ragged old TV set perched on the bar: these guys have been so thoroughly through the shit that they still carry it with them even when they’re just hanging out, watching 80s aerobics videos as softcore porn, and shooting the shit. They trade old war stories and dumb in-jokes, constantly busting each other’s balls as part of a daily routine. On this fateful day, they’ve targeted Fred (Stephen Lang), the cranky barkeeper celebrating yet another birthday. Like the rest of them, he’s old as shit and just wants to make it through another day, especially since his buddies have all conspired to take him to the strip club once he closes shop. Those plans go awry, however, when Lizard (Sierra McCormick) barrels through the door, seeking refuge after stealing a cache of valuable drugs from Boz, a gang warlord who orders his crew to descend upon the VFW and recover the goods.
But they’ve busted into the wrong place: these vets might not be in their primes, but they’re also more than capable of defending themselves against this gang of drug-addled tweakers. It’s not surprising that watching these badasses plow through hyped-up mutants is the main appeal of VFW. After all, you don’t cast the likes of William Sadler, Stephen Lang, Fred Williamson, George Wendt, Martin Kove, and David Patrick Kelly just to have them set around and chit-chat for 90s minutes. You want to see them lay waste to a bunch of bad guys, and Begos obliges with a wide, gruesome array of carnage. Joe Bob Briggs would probably be able to spin poetry out of VFW’s lengthy drive-in totals, which boast exploding heads, mangled body parts, several pints blood, and plenty of drive-in fu. And, as ever, Begos isn’t one to disappoint when he teases the appearance of a possible weapon, in this case making sure a circular saw is put to good use against a colorful horde of gang members. (Of note: “William Sadler with the circular saw” would also be the best Clue ending ever.)
Suffice it to say, VFW delivers the neon-tinted, synth-soaked, blood-splashed thrills you’ve come to expect from Begos. It’s yet another terrific replication of an exploitation movie platonic ideal: if you were to craft what a lost 80s video store staple siege movie would look and sound like, you’d come up with the cleverly staged, visceral mayhem on display here. But here’s the thing: you probably could watch a movie where this cast did just hang out and shoot the shit for 90 minutes. VFW elevates itself above mere homage with its investment in its weary, weathered characters, who quickly endear themselves with their witty banter and hearty camaraderie. If not for their familiar faces, you’d swear you walked into an actual dingy bar and happened upon a bunch of dudes who have been at this routine for years. What’s more, they’re just good dudes whose decision to protect Lizard from the gang is instinctive—it’s simply the right thing to do.
Kove does prove to be a possible exception by noting they could just save themselves by turning her and the drugs back over, allowing him to operate as a shifty wild card capable of upending the proceedings. After all, he’s the ultimate bullshitter, a used car salesman who thinks he can negotiate himself out of anything. But even this is indicative of how Begos and his co-writers insist upon bringing some level of nuance and distinction to each character: we’re not just looking at a one-dimension collection of cool character actors but rather a group of lived-in war vets who have been haunting this joint forever, each of them with their own personality tics. Lang is the laconic curmudgeon, while Sadler is a wry, sarcastic son-of-a-bitch; meanwhile, Williamson chomps on cigars, reminiscing about his glory days as Kelly trips out on medicinal marijuana. Even the new guy (Tom Williamson) who wanders in fresh from a tour of duty quickly establishes a fun rapport with the old guard, taking their barbs in stride before joining them without hesitation during the siege.
Sure, the personas and good will these actors have cultivated over the years do some of the leg work, but there’s an authentic sense of world-building that brings gravitas to all the mayhem. I especially like that Begos doesn’t treat the premise with tongue-in-cheek escapism: the weight of the years and the things these men have carried can’t be ignored, so VFW isn’t an absurd action movie fantasy. From the opening scene, there’s a creaky sort of weariness signaling a grounded, gritty approach that puts these men in genuine peril, no matter how badass they are. It’s easy to imagine a more over-the-top take on this sort of thing, but Begos thankfully resists that temptation.
Not that I’m surprised. If anything, this is the real defining quality of Begos’s work: his ability to ultimately move just far enough out of the shadows of those influences and make something his own. Here, he goes a step beyond simply delighting in gathering this indelible cast by actually giving them some terrific roles. I’m sure VFW would have been a gangbusters exploitation film in other hands, but Begos isn’t interested in empty parroting or simply conjuring a bygone age of grindhouse bloodbaths. Many of these throwbacks thrive on the rambunctious, kid-in-a-sandbox energy, and this is really no exception—it’s very committed to the bit. However, Begos and company also committed beyond the bit and recognize that boundless energy and nostalgia-ploitation can only carry a picture so far. By digging beneath the blood and guts and infusing VFW with a rugged, burly soulfulness, they’ve crafted a damn great movie about hard men in their twilight being pushed to the brink one last time.
It also leaves no doubt that Begos is firmly entrenched as one of our great filmmakers and has become one of the definitive voices for a generation of video store brats raised on a steady diet of genre movies. More than anything, you sense that this guy is just one of us and has simply made good on the promise that crossed our minds whenever we watched those old staples and imagined what we’d do if given the chance. Begos has gone and done the damn thing four times now, and VFW just might be the best of the bunch so far.
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