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In Theaters/On VOD: VFW (2020)

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VFW
(US/UK - 2020)

Directed by Joe Begos. Written by Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle. Cast: Stephen Lang, William Sadler, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, George Wendt, David Patrick Kelly, Sierra McCormick, Tom Williamson, Travis Hammer, Dora Madison, Josh Ethier, Graham Skipper, Linnea Wilson. (Unrated, 91 mins)

Since his micro-budgeted 2014 debut ALMOST HUMAN, indie horror filmmaker Joe Begos hasn't exactly been subtle in his worship of the VHS glory days. Even his production company is named "Channel 83," a loud shout-out to David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME. Like a lot of today's young genre figures, Begos has a particular affinity for the work of John Carpenter, and if VFW was any more fanatical in its obsessive devotion, Carpenter would have to get a restraining order. In an era where the Carpenter influence is all over modern horror and cult fare, VFW is arguably the most slobbering tribute yet, with a hard-on for the legendary director that's as relentlessly throbbing as the incessant synth score by Zombi's Steve Moore. It's done out of unabashed love, and since Carpenter appears to have moved on from filmmaking, spot-on replicas like VFW are likely as close as we're gonna get to experiencing new ones. That's fine if they're done right, which VFW is for the most part (the mood is set with PRINCE OF DARKNESS-inspired opening credits that play out over the first 12 minutes). Begos followed ALMOST HUMAN with THE MIND'S EYE and the recent BLISS, but VFW is his first time working from a script he didn't write, which may help explain why it's his most accomplished directing effort to date.






It also helps that he's been gifted with a great cast of Character Actor Hall of Famers, recruiting a supergroup of grizzled old B-movie vets and some familiar TV faces for what's basically ASSAULT ON VFW POST 13 with the ferocity of GREEN ROOM. It's set in a near-future urban dystopia that could be two weeks from now, where the opioid epidemic has completely spiraled out of control and major cities have become war zones where cops don't even bother to go, and the new drug on the streets is Hype. Addicts known as "Hypers" wander the ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK-like terrain in a strung-out daze, all looking for the next dose provided by ruthless dealer and crime lord Boz (Travis Hammer), who operates out of an abandoned six-screen multiplex. When Boz throws a vial of Hype off a balcony and convinces sore-covered junkie Lucy (Linnea Wilson) to go after it--jumping to her splattery death below--her enraged sister Lizard (Sierra McCormick) makes off with the remainder of his Hype inventory and hides out at the dilapidated VFW post across the road. It's there where gruff bartender Fred (Stephen Lang, also one of a truckload of producers), his Vietnam buddies Walter Reed (William Sadler), Doug (David Patrick Kelly), Zabriski (George Wendt), and slick used car salesman Lou (Martin Kove), along with elderly Korean War vet Abe (Fred Williamson) and young Shawn (Tom Williamson, no relation), who's just back from Afghanistan, are celebrating Fred's birthday and planning on closing early to take him to a nearby strip joint. Boz knows Lizard is in the bar and sends a couple of goons after her, led by his younger brother Roadie (Graham Skipper), who instantly takes a shotgun blast from Fred in one of the more exuberant exploding head kills that cinema has offered of late. But Doug also takes a machete in his shoulder, and his arm is barely hanging on. And now with two of Boz's guys dead, the stage is set for a "survive the night" gorefest with the mostly geriatric VFW regulars using their long-dormant but innate military skills ("We set a perimeter...we make our stand!") to fashion makeshift weapons out of nail-spiked barstool legs and pool cues, barricading themselves in the bar as Boz's gang tries to get in, kill everyone, and recover the Hype.


It's too bad this is getting banished to VOD, because it's a terrific rowdy crowd movie. The siege scenario is the major trope in the Carpenter playbook, one he borrowed time and again from his favorite movie, the classic 1959 western RIO BRAVO. VFW gets far gorier than anything Carpenter ever did--heads are blown apart, skulls are stomped into raw hamburger, throats are slit, people are disemboweled, offed by axe, machete, circular saw, pool cue through the mouth and out the back of the head. It's the kind of movie where gunshot wounds and opened arteries are hastily bandaged with duct tape. It's also aware that it's not exactly original (has there ever been an instance in a siege or hostage scenario in a movie where someone doesn't go Full Ellis, fancying themselves a skilled negotiator and saying something like "Relax, trust me, I can handle these guys" and actually makes it to the next scene alive?), but it also has fun with it (of course George Wendt is seated at the corner of the bar). The one big detriment of VFW is that once the power gets cut, many of the scenes take place in almost total darkness, and coupled with an occasional indulgence of quick-cut shaky-cam, some of the mayhem gets a little hard to discern on a handful of occasions.


But holy shit, what a cast of great character actors! Lang! Sadler! Luther from THE WARRIORS! Asshole Cobra Kai sensei Kreese! NORM! And 81-year-old Fred Williamson can still kick your ass (don't miss a wild-eyed Hammer breaking open a brick of Hype and snorting it by the fistful to make himself impervious to pain before the final showdown). Most pre-fab cult films of this sort--even some directed by Joe Begos--are too self-consciously hip and fall victim to becoming an endless series of snarky references and knowing winks--not quite the SHARKNADO element but certainly in the ballpark. The closest VFW gets to that is Wendt's corner seat at the bar, but Begos doesn't even draw attention to it. He doesn't have Kove say something like "Fear does not exist in this VFW post." He doesn't have Kelly screech "Hyyyyperrrrs...come out to plaaaaaay!" Dumber filmmakers couldn't have stopped themselves, but Begos plays it a little smarter with VFW. Yes, the gore is absurdly over-the-top, but it's otherwise played completely straight and the cast of veteran pros gives it much in the way of credibility and gravitas. Props to Begos for realizing that making them a joke would negatively impact the film.






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