Wednesday 11 March 2020

VFW (USA 2019: Dir Joe Begos)

Hot on the heels of Begos's other 2019 movie Bliss comes this note perfect homage to low budget 1980s gang based exploitationers with a side swipe at modern America.

A group of ex Vietnam/Korean vets hang out at a run down bar, managed by ex staff sergeant Freddy (Stephen Lang, excellent). The VFW of the title, also the name of the bar, stands for 'Veterans of Foreign Wars'; and the location is a real one, post 2494 in Irving, Texas.

As the guys shoot the breeze, and plan a birthday treat for Freddy after hours at a nearby 'titty bar,' just across the car park on the site of an equally decrepit cinema a different war is taking place; America's Opioid crisis has deepened, triggered by a new lethally addictive drug called Hype. Drug baron Boz (Travis Hammer), who as the film opens has casually caused the death of one of his entourage, Lucy (Linnea Wilson), while looking for a Hype fix, looks set to do a deal to sell his stash and skip town. But Lucy's sister Elizabeth aka Lizard (Sierra McCormick) steals the drugs as revenge for the killing, and hides out in...guess where? Yep, the VFW bar.

And so the stage is set for a battle of the generations as Boz's team of reprobates lays siege to VFW, while the vets - accompanied by new soldier Shawn (Tom Williamson), who picked the wrong day to pop into a soldier friendly establishment for a quiet beer - gallantly protect Lizard with a combination of American grit and lethal home made weapons.

Now I wasn't as enamoured as many by Bliss, and on the surface Begos's follow up stylistically treads the same ground; shot on 16mm with lots of saturated neon, oodles of murky but impressive gore and Steve Moore's pounding, authentic recreation of those well loved slightly wonky synth soundtracks of 80s genre movies.

But this is so much more than a pallid homage to the action films of yesteryear, although its debt to films like John Carpenter's 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 is considerable. One of the first things that strikes is the location: in a lengthy tracking shot which is actually pretty shocking because what is photographed seems totally undressed, the Texan urban wasteland unfolds, all graffiti, burnt out shops and broken wire fences. As Freddy drives to the bar, swigging from a hip flask, he and passenger Abe (Fred Williamson) bemoan the state of the streets, ironically pretty much unchanged from the same streets we've been used to seeing in 'urban' films from the 80s. "In this neighbourhood, gunshots are like crickets," someone remarks; clearly not much has changed in three decades.

And the casting of 80s exploitation regulars in the vet roles is both inspiring and referential - those exploitation movies that Begos loves did exactly the same thing. So we have: Stephen Lang, as seen in Michael Mann and George P. Cosmatos films; 80s action regular Fred Williamson; Martin (The Karate Kid I, II and III, plus a whole heap of others) Kove as sleazy used car salesman Lou; and best of all William Sadler, as the rheumy, sozzled Walter Reed, who rediscovers his inner solider at the appropriate time. These guys get all the best lines - "We leave at 23:00 or whenever I finish urinating" says Reed at one point - in contrast to the younger gang members who in the credits are mostly denied names (although Dora Madison, who memorably played Dezzy in Bliss, gets a little more character definition as the brutal Gutter).

Any American movie made today which touches on the haves and the have nots could be called 'Trumpean', but the extra angle here is Begos's thinly veiled criticism of America's treatment of its war veterans, and despite all the choreographed mayhem, chopped limbs and thundering soundtrack, this remains a very human story about not writing off older people in society. Excellent.

VFW is available on Digital Download now

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