Seven years since his 2013 feature, Almost Human, it is safe to say filmmaker Joe Begos is having a pretty good run these days. The attention he’s drawn after last year’s Tribeca Film Festival world premiere of Bliss is hugely deserved, and all for the better as RLJE Films looks to roll out his most recent success, VFW.
Penned by Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle in their feature scripting debut, Begos’ VFW presents an immersive, heavily contoured, gritty and dark rollercoaster into a nightmaring, decadent suburbia, where for a vengeful young woman standing against a seemingly unstoppable evil, old soldiers are all that’s in a rural town without heroes or hope.
America is a lawless, opioid-addicted and near-apocalyptic version of itself, topped by the explosive popularity of a new powdered stimulant known as ‘Hype’. The new drug is all there is to live for, including for the insatiable residents within the confines of a riotous, abandoned movie theater-turned-drug den run by Boz (Travis Hammer), a vicious crime boss who controls its local allocation.
Just a sizeable pedestrian distance away is the property of one Fred Paras (Stephen Lang), a former platoon commander who runs VFW Outpost 2494, a veterans’ pub that, despite its many years of wear-and-tear, still stands as home to any and all who make it back home after military service. His small circle of friends/bar patrons is comprised of fellow Vietnam comrades Walter (William Sadler), Lou (Martin Kove), Thomas – a.k.a. “Z” (Cheers actor George Wendt) and Doug (David Patrick Kelly), and Korean war veteran, Abe (Fred Williamson).
Fred is the most respected and admired of his group, particularly for his past leadership and valor. To this end, it also happens to be his birthday, and his reluctance to celebrate it hardly bears any ill-effect on the festive mood of his crew, and if Walter can help it, come hell or high water, a night of celebratory drinking and shameless stripper entertainment awaits. Hell, even humble, charismatic and straight-laced newcomer Shawn (Tom Williamson), the bar’s latest arrival home from the Middle East, is invited.
As for Boz, he’s got his own problems. He’s desperate to relocate himself, his brother and his heinous crew of violent miscreants out of town, but not until he finds a buyer willing to pony up for the last several bricks of Hype in his possession. The load has a fair number of zeroes in its price tag for an all-or-nothing deal that can’t come sooner, which, much to his chagrin, makes its abrupt disappearance all the more troubling.
In the spur of the moment, a woman named Lizard (Sierra McCormick) is spotted running with his drugs in her possession, and it’s only a matter of time before Boz unleashes what he so adequately describes as his ‘army of braindead animals’ to retrieve her and his merch. They’re soon hot on her tail, and before anyone knows it, her desperate turn for refuge in Fred’s bar becomes a night of uncertainty, ensuing a fight for survival that pushes Fred and his friends closer to the brink than they have ever been before.
Host to an emerging screenwriting feature debut for Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle, Begos’ VFW presents an attractive, brooding and bloody feast on the eyes for genre cinema fans. Moviegoers keen on the kind of cinemafare churned out by production company Cinestate (i.e. Bone Tomahawk, Brawl In Cell Block 99) will take a favorable liking to the film’s practical use of visual effects and pensive, hypnotic tone, all of which culminates an atmospheric intent implores a more dated feel to its contemporary setting, and even with respect to the villains and costume design in general.
Beyond the film’s palpably written screenplay, of course, are the performances by our ensemble cast. Coalescing a terrific chemistry that consistently from start to finish, the story takes off with each of our characters laying into one another with jovial banter, filled with old war stories and shameless locker room chatter, and oftentimes with birthday jabs at Fred’s expense.
The pub itself has its own set of relics on display that tell tales of their own, from Abe’s beloved machete mounted atop the bar, to bathroom pictures of Fred’s soldiering heydays, and even his old truck armed an empty fifty caliber machine gun in the backyard lot. These highlights are shown for good reason as this pertains to the central development surrounding Fred as the film slowly peels back the layers, revealing bits and pieces of his past, and how they all embody his own quiet, personal torment.
It’s the kind of progression that invariably underscores what largely feels like the film’s core messaging, iterating what it means to be not only just leader, but also to be exemplary. Key moments between Fred with Walter, with used car salesman and self-proclaimed ‘animal’ Lou, and even in a private spate with Lizard, help exude this in the process of accruing audience empathy, encouraging our support.
Folks who enjoyed Bliss will especially get a kick out of actress Dora Madison who plays salty and menacing femme fatale Gutter, Boz’s right hand woman. To Boz’s own masochistic delight, she takes no prisoners, and more to the point, she takes no shit, which also serves as icing on the cake as she tries to taunt and intimidate a rather unintimidated Abe during their pre-fight staredown.
Prior to this moment, it’s also Abe who delivers one of the film’s best pre-fight scene lines of dialogue, including with Shawn, whose addition to this grisly tale bodes as an imminent da coda on the matter of the aforementioned messaging. He definitely earns his stripes with Fred and his crew, and that especially goes for Lizard who totally seizes the opportunity for herself in one of the film’s most pivotal and violent turning points.
The action explodes when it arises as most of our characters engage. When Boz’s mob of mutants begin their attack, Fred and the gang mount up and build as many feasible traps and makeshift weapons as possible to use. Next to a double-barrel shotgun and the few rounds left in Shawn’s pistol, the group resorts to anything and everything sharp within arm’s reach, from spiked batons to axes, car keys and knives, even with Walter sharing some of the most exciting moments of the film, and when he goes, he freaking goes!
Filmed as a tribute to the armed forces by way of a real-life veteran’s pub in Texas, Begos’ VFW delivers a gory and intense action horror that entertains with absolute gusto. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and vastly dives deep into fun and fantastic genre territory for cinemagoers, but also serves allegory on many fronts, highlighting of the unforgiving aesthetics and sacrificial nature of war, and the redemptive notion that even an old soldier like Fred, in his darkest hour, still has enough fight left to be all he can be.