A grisly bit of old-school mayhem about aged G.I. Joes battling marauders intent on destroying them and that which they hold dear, VFW is an exercise in pure, unadulterated nostalgia. With its every element rooted in fanboyish adoration for yesteryear’s genre classics, director Joe Begos and writers Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle’s work operates less as a unique creation than as a brazen time-warp reverie. It’s akin to a hazy dream of stock carnage, clichés, and performances from beloved B-movie icons, all of which have been smashed together and refracted through a prism of cinematic pasts gone by.
Such incessant homage often causes VFW to bog down in a morass of rote nastiness and macho bluster. Yet it’s so fanatically devoted to being unoriginal—eager to lean into its influences at every narrative and stylistic turn—that it almost negates criticisms about its derivation. Imitation is the sole point here, and to that end, Begos’ latest is a throwback designed to satisfy those with an insatiable craving for a grindhouse cover version of John Carpenter’s greatest hits.
Those who’ve seen Begos’ prior Almost Human, The Mind’s Eye, and Bliss won’t be surprised to hear that VFW treads familiar terrain; that’s the filmmaker’s veritable calling card. It also doesn’t take long for that realization to kick in, since the sounds of Steve Moore’s synthesizer score set an immediate Carpenter-esque mood. As introductory text cards elucidate, America has been overrun by an opioid epidemic, and the latest craze is a drug called hype. Since it’s packaged in bricks that resemble cocaine or heroin, it’s not quite clear what differentiates hype from other narcotics, or how it’s even ingested—although a late scene suggests that you can shovel it up your nose. Regardless, it turns users’ mouths veiny, or at least it does to Lucy (Linnea Wilson), who in a squalid shopping mall populated by junkies, is convinced by dealer Boz (Travis Hammer), a nondescript psycho in a studded leather jacket and a belt lined with bullets, to jump off a balcony in order to procure another fix. Predictably, she lands with a great, big splat.
Hype has turned neighborhoods into war zones where cops dare not patrol, and where everything and everyone is drenched in murky blacks, blues and reds. On the outskirts of an unnamed city—like hype itself, Begos keeps particulars as vague as possible—Fred (Stephen Lang) takes swigs from his flask while picking up buddy Abe (Fred Williamson) and driving to the local VFW, which Fred operates. It’s a dingy bar that, like Fred and his truck, has seen better days. They’re joined there by veteran buddies Walter (William Sadler), Lou (Martin Kove), Doug (David Patrick Kelly) and Thomas (George Wendt). Having served in either ‘Nam or Korea, this grizzled bunch has gotten together to celebrate Fred’s birthday by downing shots and heading out to the nearby strip bar. Before they can do that, however, they’re joined by a new vet, Shawn (Tom Williamson), just home from some ill-defined desert conflict. And then, their night takes a turn when Lizard (Sierra McCormick) bursts into the bar, murderous pursuers in tow.
The ensuing skirmish leaves Doug gravely wounded, the first of many instances in which VFW revels in the sight of an axe crashing into gooey flesh. The reason for Lizard’s sudden chaotic intrusion is that she’s stolen Boz’s enormous stash of hype as a way to exact revenge against him for convincing Lucy, her sister, to take the aforementioned fatal plunge. Fred and company are thus forced to take up arms against a steady stream of hyped-up invaders, in a scenario that’s basically Assault on Precinct 13 mixed with a dash of Escape From New York and, thanks to the film’s stunt casting, some Hobo with a Shotgun-via-The Expendables vibes.
Bodily fluids are soon spilled in great, gushing torrents, with Lang and his cohorts proving rejuvenated by this opportunity to revisit their military glory days. As an actioner about noble grunts who are “too old for this shit” and yet game for one last vicious mission, VFW is a reactionary fantasy about the virile empowerment of slaughtering faceless hordes in the name of honor, duty and loyalty to one’s fellow in-the-trenches comrades. No matter the sexualized sight of Fred impaling Boz’s right-hand woman Gutter (Dora Madison) through the throat with a VFW flagpole, coherent political and social arguments are beyond the scope of its limited intellect; one gets the sense that, like everything else, its threadbare ideas have been cribbed from its ‘70s and ‘80s predecessors. This makes it, in a very real sense, a straightforward saga about heroic men slaughtering evil men because that’s what moviegoing men like to watch, logic and reason and basic coherence be damned.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to totally dismiss VFW when its stars are so game to flex their hammy aggro muscles. Lang has a voice like broken gravel stirred in maple syrup, and his gruff demeanor is thankfully free of wink-wink self-consciousness. That’s true of the rest of the cast as well; there are no sly nods to Kove’s The Karate Kid villainy, and Kelly doesn’t tell anyone to “come out and play-ee-ay.” Only Wendt, in what amounts to a glorified cameo, seems to be subtly goofing on his past Cheers fame by sitting at the end of a bar, and then, instead of demanding more beer, showing interest in Doug’s scientifically-grown weed. For the most part, they all seem to be enjoying this moment in the fountain-of-youth spotlight, in particular Williamson, who in the film’s funniest moment inhales a faceful of hype for a jolt of additional power.
Begos doesn’t waste energy trying to pretend he’s not ripping off Carpenter, which gives the proceedings the air of a professionally mounted amateur film—the sort of thing a cinema-obsessed teenager would make with his friends, after school, with a 16mm camera, some firecrackers, and a barrel full of blood-like corn syrup. The fact that a bigger budget and notable headliners haven’t changed Begos’ ambitions leaves VFW feeling like a stunted-adolescent effort. Still, those with fond memories of their own childhood love of goofy, gory madness may find it a comforting tribute to the indefatigable viability of relics.