VFW (2019)

VFW first published by SciFiNow

Strap: Joe Begos pits old army vets against young drugged-up punks in this ultraviolent, postmodern, retrofuturist siege actioner.

Every night, a group of ageing American ex-army men from the Vietnam – and in one case the Korean – War gathers at dingy VFW Post 2494, run by their fellow soldier Fred Parras (Stephen Graham). Together, they knock back a few drinks, share some old combat stories, and engage in the kind of camaraderie that ordinary civilians just cannot comprehend. Left behind by a world that does not appreciate or even notice them, these men are the title’s ‘Veterans of Foreign Wars’, united in a sodality of common, traumatic experience, and fully versed in the meaning of  honour and sacrifice. A dying breed, they see their numbers ever dwindling – even if occasionally the odd younger soldier, like Afghanistan vet Shawn ‘Deadeye’ Mason (Tom Williamson), drifts in to supplement their ranks. Backward looking, bonded in their outsider status and witness to all manner of horrific shit, the VFW are, in many ways, just like the genre community, making audience identification dead easy.

Joe Begos’ fourth feature, made back-to-back with his high-stakes ‘art-horror’ freakout Bliss (2019), shares with both his veteran characters, and with his earlier retro features Almost Human (2013) and The Mind’s Eye (2015), a strong sense of nostalgia. In Begos’ case, that nostalgia is for a certain era of genre filmmaking, the late Seventies and early Eighties, wherein characters (chiefly, but not exclusively, men) had their mettle tested by hyperviolent dystopian scenarios. After all, the setting of this film is not today, but a near future whose graffitied urban outskirts resemble nothing less than the scuzzy nightmare slums and ganglands of yesteryear. It may be set in a fantasy tomorrow, but VFW, like Fred who worships his antiquated truck, or like his fellow vets who get their voyeuristic thrills watching scratchy old aerobics VHSes, is always looking fondly back to the past. It’s all at once retrofuturist, and postmodern, barreling forwards at a pace despite having one foot in the grave.

The retired servicemen (including genuine acting veterans Martin Kove, Fred Williamson, David Patrick Kelly and William Sadler, with George Wendt once again propping up the bar as though he never left TV’s Cheers) find themselves sheltering the fugitive Lizard (Sierra McCormick) and being beleaguered by vicious dealer Boz (Travis Hammer), his blade-bearing enforcer Gutter (Dora Madison) and an army of narcotic-crazed addicts hell bent on retrieving the drugs that Lizard has stolen. Begos brings these earthy vets into aggressive collision with genre-bound, leather-clad, over-the-top punks high on fictive pharmaceutical ‘Hype’. In this clash of worlds and generations, everything is bathed in the primary lighting, pulsing synth tones and practical makeup and gore effects of Reagan-era exploitation cinema, even as Begos pays respectful homage to Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979), John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Escape From New York (1981), James Glickenhaus’ The Exterminator (1980), John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977) and Mark Lester’s Class of 1984 (1982) – with the model of Jeremy Saulnier‘s more recent Green Room (2015) thrown in, like Shawn and Lizard, to carry the flame and show old promise enduring in the new. 

The paradox of VFW is that it is so lovingly crafted, and yet so utterly, gleefully nasty, as Fred once more leads his men on a last stand of shooting, axing and skewering against the zombie-like encroachments of a younger generation that represents to them all that has gone wrong in America. “Time’s on their side, it’s not on ours,” declares Fred, here an old-school, oater-style hero in a world that has little place anymore for him (Graham played an equally tough but less heroic veteran in Fede Álvarez’s Don’t Breathe, 2016). What ensues is an almost literally conservative film in which history gets its revenge and, as in Daniel Barber’s Harry Brown (2009), Robert Schwentke’s Red (2010), Adrián García Bogliano’s Late Phases (2014), Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008) and The Mule (2018) and Adrian Grunberg’s Rambo: Last Blood (2019), the men-at-arms of old get to fight once more, this time on their home turf, and to teach errant, amoral youth some hard lessons in the ancient and glorious art of war. 

© Anton Bitel