The street drug du jour in VFW’s near-if-not-adjacent future is Hype. The hows, the whys, and the highs don’t much matter — it looks like blow and makes you a homicidal maniac for another hit. So should a spurned sidekick to the Hype kingpin steal his remaining supply and take refuge in a sleepy VFW hall across the street, resolution may not be quite so civil as a free bowl of pork rinds and lukewarm Coors.
Like all the best siege movies, the setup in Joe Begos’s VFW is so simple, it’s almost supernatural. The swarming forces of evil are functionally anonymous, no more distinct than one wave from another in a roiling sea of murderous junkies. The pressure is the point, but the poor souls caught in the storm are what matter, and these are welcome souls for sore eyes.
Stephen Lang. William Sadler. Martin Kove. David Patrick Kelly. The immortal Fred Williamson. Dyed-in-the-wool That Guys cracking wise and eventually skulls, all aged into varying shades of the uncle who brings a flask to Thanksgiving and wants a monogrammed pool cue for Christmas. In a banner year for big movies that double as excuses for stars to hang out, it’s a rare treat to see a smaller movie do the same for grindhouse, Blaxploitation, and VHS vets. The later guttings and pulpings look real enough by 16-millimeter comic book standards, but there’s no faking the camaraderie between these guys. While it’s not quite a dissertation on the subject — see: guttings and pulpings — age is an enemy in VFW, justlike the Hypeheads clawing at the door. Lang’s leader, Fred, should be celebrating his birthday, but he cuts off any reminders about it with a hastily poured shot. Sadler, as wobbly best friend Walter, can’t stop reminiscing about the good, old, vulgar days, even as he tries his damndest to recreate them. As used car dealer Lou, Kove basks in Men’s Wearhouse bravado that may or may not be suit-deep.
Writers Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle make just enough room for catching beleaguered breaths and letting the squad weigh their unexpectedly sudden mortality. But there’s also plenty of Manwich mutilation to satisfy even the most discerning gorehound. Bar-related bludgeons land like freight trains and heads pop accordingly. With Fangoria right there in the credits, you expect top-shelf viscera, and VFW does not disappoint. If you also expect a certain vintage from the resurrected magazine’s seal of approval, you’re in luck.
Cinematographer Mike Testin shoots VFW through the dirty end of a pint glass. Grain squirms in every exhausted close-up. The beloved bar is a kaleidoscope of flickering beer signs and angry neon. The bombed-out movie theater the Hypers call home, with open flames as part of the interior design, looks like a high court from hell. VFW belongs on a drive-in screen or at least the back aisle of Family Video. In the indie Olympics of ‘80s throwbacks, it takes home a medal without even breaking a sweat.
That kind of package comes with a few rough edges, though. Some jokes are about as surly as you’d expect from a group of 60-something Army buddies, but still surlier than anything at your neighborhood Regal. VFW wears its low budget well, until a few skirmishes toward the end seem cut around, if not cut entirely. Mention is made of post-traumatic stress, if not by name and never in conjunction with a few of the vets’ zeal for brutality, like when Walter stomps a Hyper into floor wax long after everyone else in the bar knows they’re dead. Consider that another rubber-stamped reminder that this movie is also not for the faint of heart when it comes to the red stuff.
As a gory love letter to Assault On Precinct 13 and celebration of Fangoria’s renewed mission statement, VFW burns all the way down and leaves you feeling more than fine. You won’t find a better showcase of actors who still got it and would gladly put up their dukes at the suggestion they ever lost it.
(Screened at Nightmares Film Festival; released scheduled for Feb. 14)