Support the troops. Bring them home. Neglect them on a systemic level and force them to rely only on each other, congregating in beat-up old dive bars nestled by drug dens teeming with psycho mutant punks. Sit back and watch the arterial spray fly as vets go toe-to-toe with savage tweakers. It’s the American way.
It’s the Joe Begos way, too. VFW, his second film in six months (following the release of Bliss in September), promises little buts keeps that promise. When a Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost is sieged by a gang of grungy leather-clad hooligans, out for blood and also a stolen backpack full of a substance called “Hype” (essentially Meth 2.0), the bar’s clientele, soldiers old and young (but mostly old), band together to fight their enemy with whatever ordnance they’re able to scrounge together, from fire axes to improvised explosives to the occasional gun (the last of these being the least interesting weapon in their makeshift arsenal). Heads blow up, torsos impaled. Limbs get amputated. Gore and a good time: That’s a Begos film.
Begos’ style as a filmmaker can be captured in two words: “Hell yeah.” To judge by Dan Whitehead’s set visit report in Fangoria’s January print edition, Begos probably says “fuck” more than “cut” or “action” while shooting. On paper he reads like a genuine rock ‘n’ roller, a man bound and determined to make the world around him totally metal. It’s in his soundtracks, and it’s in his proclivity for splattering guts first and building character later. For VFW, that proclivity grows overwhelming on both the script level and on screen, which leaves it up to Begos’ cast to give his viewers something to grip.
Stephen Lang plays Fred, owner and operator of this particular VFW bar, celebrating his birthday with all of his buddies-cum-comrades-at-arms: wisecracking Walter (William Sadler), hotshot car dealer Lou (Martin Cove), tough guy and total sex bomb Abe (Fred Williamson), hippie Doug (David Patrick Kelly) and jovial Thomas (George Wendt). It’s a solid lineup of past-prime badasses, joined by Shawn (Tom Williamson), a younger vet back home from Afghanistan, and Lizard (Sierra McCormick), the thief responsible for snatching the backpack and bringing the wrath of evil gang leader Boz (Travis Hammer) down on the group. Lang does the most impressive legwork turning Fred into a fleshed out figure instead of an archetype, but everybody here brings their personalities fully to their roles and makes something memorable, or at least enjoyable, out of what amount to cardboard cutouts.
Begos is making his version of a war movie, after all, which is to say that he’s making a Begos movie that happens to be loosely connected with war. Mostly he’s plugged in the components of war pictures, or other genre pictures that draw from war pictures—Predator—and then subsumed them with his Bego-ness. That’s not a bad thing! Begos’ combination of grainy visual texture and low-fi effects render VFW an appropriately grindhouse-esque experience: fun, high in calories, low on substance. If ten horror films open in 2020 that better qualify as “midnight movies,” it’ll be a miracle. VFW demands screenings packed to the gills with horror nuts ready to cheer for crushed skulls.
It also, as a production, demands retooling. Begos makes choices seemingly for the sole purpose of making choices, rather than to augment character or facilitate plot (though he is working off of a script procured by Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle, which puts choice slightly out of his reach). When Abe takes a huge faceful of Hype for himself toward the end of the film, ostensibly his valiant self-sacrifice to save his friends from certain doom, the decision doesn’t pay off. It just sort of happens, and the film moves on from it. Unlike Bliss, which has a cogent intention pushing it forward, VFW plays slapdash, which admittedly fits the film’s grimy aesthetic, a delirious theme park ride. Maybe that’s all a horror movie needs to be to be worth watching, but Begos can do more than douse a set with viscera, even if VFW doesn’t need “more” to justify itself.
Director: Joe Begos
Writer: Max Brallier, Matthew McArdle
Starring: Stephen Lang, William Sadler, Sierra McCormick, Martin Cove, Fred Williamson, Tom Williamson, David Patrick Kelly, Travis Hammer, Dora Madison, George Wendt, Josh Ethier
Release Date: February 14, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.