★★★ out of ★★★★★
Chalk one up for the old dudes! Drugged out mutant crazies siege the local veteran’s watering hole in the latest offering from FANGORIA, featuring some fan-favorite genre actors getting a chance to step out of the supporting role shadows.
Directed by Joe Begos
There is something decidedly old-school about Joe Begos’ [Bliss] most current outing. He has taken a very John Carpenter like take on a dysfunctional punk-rock world gone wrong siege movie. It looks like an ’80s video grindhouse film, but the setting is an opioid crisis gone hyperbolically bad, suggestive of current issues.
This film pits a bunch of drug-addled lunatics, mutated by an opioid called Hypophedrine, which goes by the street name of Hype. When a young woman, Lizard (Sierra McCormick) steals the stash of Hype from the young local crime lord, Boz (Travis Hammer), she takes refuge in the local Veterans of Foreign Wars watering hole across the street from the overflowing drug den. In the VFW an aging group of Vietnam Vets is forced to come to her aid, at the risk of being overrun by hordes of furious addicts. And this time, it’s up to the old guard to defend their beloved bar.
Stephen Lang gets a chance to get the starring bill here, as the bar owner, Fred. After playing for so many years as the heavy or the soldier in many supporting roles he gets a chance to play the leading man. I suspect his magnificent job in Don’t Breathe earned him top billing, and he does a fine job here as the reluctant hero. He’s one of Hollywood’s best unsung tough guys, and he gets a good character to work with here. It’s Fred’s birthday, and the rest of his old Vietnam squaddies have gathered at the VFW and want to take him out to a strip club if he is willing to shut the bar down early. But, boobs can wait. He’s a pro, and he’s going to keep the bar open until normal closing time, which he will regret with what’s to come.
The rest of the barflies is a who’s who list of popular genre actors. Bill Sadler (The Mist, The Shawshank Redemption) gets to play a good guy for a change, as Fred’s wingman Walter. Martin Kove, best known as the cruel sensei Kreese in The Karate Kid, plays the slippery used car salesman Lou. Fred Williamson still imposing at 82 years of age, gets to show he still has action chops as Abe. George Wendt, a Joe Begos regular having also appeared in Bliss, is Zee, and David Patrick Kelly who came to prominence as the gang leader Luther in The Warriors rounds out the band of brothers gathered at the VFW. They are joined by a young Afghan war vet, Shawn (Tom Williamson, no relation to Fred) to show that it’s not just ‘Nam vets who like to toss down a few at the VFW.
The plot really doesn’t require much explanation. The horde of freaked out tweakers sends wave after wave of maniacs crashing into the little bar, only to get repulsed by hardened tough guys armed with makeshift weapons. Arguments are made about giving up the stash of drugs and Lizard, but Fred keeps the group together to avoid giving up the only collateral they have. One by one the vets suffer heroic losses, and it comes down to a big boss fight at the end. Is any of this surprising? Hardly.
Attempts were made to create character depth, and in that, there were hits and misses. Lang played the noble stoic soldier well, as he has in many films before, though he does get to have a crisis moment and a rough story arc. That felt a little shoehorned in. Sadler was much more interesting in his boozy buddy, even if there really wasn’t a story arc. Sadler gets a lot more screen time than he usually does, and he makes good work of it. Less successful were Fred Williamson and George Wendt whose characters were rather static. Though, full admission, it was cool to see George Wendt back at a bar on the silver screen. (NORM!) Also, the performance of McCormick, who was so magnificent in The Vast of Night, seemed forced. I just couldn’t buy into her as a punk with a conscience.
The villains were a mixed bag. The bruising Josh Ethier’s Tank (also one of the film’s producers) and Dora Madison’s badass street ninja Gutter were both imposing and fun to watch. But they were the henchmen. You do NOT want to get into close combat with these killers. Unfortunately, Travis Hammer’s boss bad Boz just did not inspire fear or dread. He was physically unimposing and other than yelling, he didn’t inspire the psychotic crazy that I think the role called for. He needed a bit more delicious menace… a little bit of Euron Greyjoy from Game of Thrones, who I thought resembles a bigger and badder version of Boz.
Is VFW entertaining? Yes. The pacing and brutality of the combat scenes are appropriately gory for a FANGORIA production, and there is a propulsive drive behind the plot, keeping it simple. There is no ambiguity in this movie. This is a prototype siege film, with all the beats and nods that you would expect. The battle gear up sequence. The preparation of the barricades. The noble sacrifices. The old worn-out war stories. The sworn loyalty to their comrades. It’s all there. It’s the last stand at home base. The Alamo. There are strong structural and narrative feelings of Assault on Precinct 13, Night of the Living Dead, From Dusk Til Dawn, The Magnificent Seven, Feast, and Straw Dogs here. If any or all of those movies appeal to you, then VFW will surely strike a chord.
VFW will arrive in limited release in theaters on February 14, 2020. It is rated R for lots of intense violence, practical gore effects, and copious narcotics usage.