Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came, but it doesn’t hurt if they’re also ready to maim… That’s the predicament Fred (Stephen Lang) finds himself in as another night tending bar at his local VFW establishment takes a sudden turn towards darkness. One minute he and his war buds — Walter (William Sadler), Abe (Fred Williamson), Lou (Martin Kove), Doug (David Patrick Kelly), and Thomas (George Wendt) — are welcoming home a young man (Tom Williamson) returning from duty in the Middle East with talk of pubic hair and used cars, and the next they’re fighting for their lives against a horde of nameless psychos hopped up on goofballs who dare to interrupt the evening with violence, carnage, and drug-fueled frenzy.
That’s the gist of Joe Begos‘ fourth (and so far best) feature film, VFW, and while there are a scant few more details at play the combination of urban siege film and that glorious cast is more than enough reason to give it a spin. Think The Expendables but with actual bad-asses instead of movie stars, and then slice several zeroes off the budget, and you’ll be in the mind set for what VFW is cooking up. It’s a fun, bloody affair pitting your favorite over the hill character actor tough guys against rude punks in need of an ass-whooping, and while that budget hurts at times the film still delivers the gritty, neon-splashed goods.
It seems obvious to say any modern siege film is indebted to some degree to John Carpenter’s classic Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) — which itself owed an admitted debt to Howard Hawks’ own classic Rio Bravo (1959) — but Begos’ movie goes the extra blood-soaked mile of wanting to be Assault on Precinct 13. That’s not a knock as every filmmaker should aim high, but in aping so many beats it leaves open more room for comparison. An intro showing our lead driving to work through a blighted urban landscape, a stranger who wanders in and triggers all of the trouble, a dangerous community where cops don’t respond to the sound of gunfire, a scrappy crew coming together to face the faceless, and a killer synth score too (this time courtesy of the always fantastic Steve Moore). Begos introduces enough alternations to make it his own, although at least one change actually hurts the film in that the stranger, a young woman named Lizard (Sierra McCormick), doesn’t immediately go catatonic and instead sticks around delivering rough dialogue and a tonally iffy performance.
The leads, though, are aces and remind viewers why they’ve been so beloved as action genre icons for so many years. Okay, Wendt hasn’t done much ass-kicking, but the dude feels so at home on a bar stool that his presence makes this place immediately feel like home. The rest have been popping up in action movies for decades in classics like Hammer (1972), Death Race 2000 (1975), The Warriors (1979), Vigilante (1982), Commando (1985), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Manhunter (1986), Die Hard 2 (1990), Trespass (1992), Tombstone (1993), and more. Their collective presence here creates its own thrill, and when the shit hits the fan you can’t help but cheer on these old ass warriors.
The resulting deaths are often of the bloody and gory variety, and while some of them are lost to limited lighting — a possible fault of that even more limited budget — others are visible in their intended glory with exploding heads, broken bones, and bloody spurts painting the walls. Begos and editor Josh Ethier find real energy in their action scenes, and they work to give the film a rising momentum pausing only briefly for compelling character beats within the bar and less necessary ones beyond its walls. Boz (Travis Hammer), the lead baddie, is too dramatic and showy for a film this intentionally minimal, but at least his sidekick Gutter (Dora Madison) is capable of delivering real menace with little more than a glare.
VFW is a tight little throwback to grim and gritty VHS fare of generations past, and like 1983’s under-seen Canadian gem Self Defense it takes the right lessons from the classics while delivering just enough thrills of its own. Fans of Begos’ earlier films will find his love of all things gory and grainy remain intact, and this stellar cast makes it all go down easy.