Opening onscreen text informs us that a new drug called hylophedrine, or Hype for short, has taken the streets of an unnamed city by storm. As a result, lawlessness is rife, junkies - known as "hypers" - will literally kill for a fix, and the city has largely gone to shit.
On a grey Friday afternoon, elderly Fred (Stephen Lang) drives through the city in his truck observing the littered streets, run-down and empty aside from the odd deadbeat ambling aimlessly around. It's his birthday, which he's not too keen to celebrate, and he's on his way to pick up pal Abe (Fred Williamson). He's giving him a lift to the bar Fred runs, a VFW post - that is, a meeting place-cum-bar for Veterans of Foreign Wars. Hitching a ride in the back of the truck is fellow old-timer Walter (William Sadler).
As they arrive at the club, they observe the punks hanging around outside the abandoned cinema on the opposite side of the street. They don't seem too friendly but "as long as they stay over there", as Fred remarks, they shouldn't prove to be any bother. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice at this point that one of the films that last played at the cinema was BLISS, director Joe Begos's previous film.
As the evening progresses, the bar gets busier - regular barflies also include cocky Lou (Martin Kove), wisecracking Thomas (George Wendt) and Doug (David Patrick Kelly). It turns out these men all served in Vietnam together. The club quietens again as the night wears on, leaving this core of regulars propping up the bar. A young black solider Shawn (Tom Williamson) walks in and is welcomed into their fold. He's regaled by stories of old, which mostly serve to illustrate how bad-ass Fred truly was in his day.
This group's plan is to celebrate Fred's birthday - whether he wants to or not - by going to see the daughter of one of his former conquests, who's pole-dancing nearby later that night in a "titty bar". Shawn is invited along.
But ... this night is about to go awry in spectacular fashion for these old friends. You see, their story collides with a considerably less jovial one which has been occurring concurrently on the other side of the city ...
Boz (Travis Hammer), is a notorious drug dealer, whose gang looks like something straight out of THE WARRIORS or CLASS OF 1984. They rule the streets with their poison, only coming out after dark to sell their filth and keep the weak that way. They're plotting a major drug deal which will put Boz in a position where he can leave the city and make a new life for himself. And he'll kill anyone who gets in his way. But the junkies outside are ravenous and rioting. Meanwhile young Lizard (Sierra McCormick) finds her drug-dependent sister dead and, knowing Boz was behind her murder, retaliates by stealing his huge stash of hype. Upon realising this, he takes to his Tannoy speaker and announces to the Hypers lurking outside his tenement apartment that Lizard has ran off with their fix - suddenly the chase in on and everyone on the streets is after her.
On the run and desperately seeking refuge from her hype-hungry pursuers, Lizard inevitably finds her way to Fred's VFW post. Alas, she also lets a couple of crazed would-be assailants through the establishment's doors. Doug is seriously injured in the ensuing fracas. With the vengeful junkies disposed of, one of which unfortunately happens to be Boz's right-hand-man and little brother Roadie (Graham Skipper), Thomas suggests they all flee in his car to somewhere safe and find a place to eat.
No such luck: Thomas is killed when he steps outside of the bar and the others swiftly realise there are even more drugged-up psychos waiting outside. So, back in the bar they go.
As Boz and his gang close in, the veterans lock the bar's doors and start preparing weaponry to defend themselves. A long night of fighting for survival lies ahead. Who will survive, and what will be left of them?
Joe Begos has been steadily making a name for himself in recent years with attractively-shot retro genre flicks such as ALMOST HUMAN, THE MIND'S EYE and, specifically, BLISS.
I wasn't a great fan of BLISS. I'm aware that it has a cult following but it felt a little too obsessed by its 80s aesthetic worship, with little of substance to back it up. But with VFW, Begos seems to have finally found his feet.
Though the premise and setting echo the likes of FEAST, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, and even TRUE GRIT (actually name-checked by one character), with a sharp intake of THE A-TEAM's crazy fashioning of weapons out of everyday objects, it retains a style and identity of its own.
Everything is still heavily stylised and imbued with rich colours which, married with the largely synth-lead score, does hark back to classic action-revenge thrillers of the 70s and 80s. But it all feels considerably less contrived than, say, HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN or even MANDY. If anything, VFW could almost pass as a lost gem from John Carpenter's classic era.
Speaking of Carpenter, Steve Moore's constantly brooding and occasionally exhilarating electronic score recalls some of the master's finer works in a natural, unforced manner. Occasional flourishes of metal are infrequent enough so as to not spoil the tone.
Thankfully free from tiresome fake distress such as cigarette burns and other specks, VFW actually captures the real spirit of genre flicks from back in the day. Its presentation is clean, popping with colour and unrushed in pace. Even the opening titles are lengthily played out and miraculously free from any desire to sex them up Tarantino-style.
The early scenes which establish the disarray of the unnamed city are reminiscent of the scuzzy neighbourhood vibe so realistically conveyed in STREET TRASH: all graffiti-strewn derelict buildings and winos adorning the sidewalks. Mike Testin's cinematography is also on point, again echoing Carpenter's seminal works by proffering handsome but unfussy compositions which only serve to propel the action rather than showcase himself.
Among the several co-producers' imprints seen at the film's start is that of Fangoria magazine. True to form, this guarantees a good amount of gore among the expertly choreographed combat scenes - of which there are many. Bob Trevino and Chris A Wilks handle the practical gore FX well: there's nothing particularly innovative or memorable on offer in this respect, but it's all good fun while it lasts. There's also a small amount of digital effects applied in a non-intrusive manner.
Performances are enthusiastic across the board, the older gentlemen who make up the core protagonists clearly having fun playing out one last "hoorah". And what a cast of veterans! Fair enough, each one plays a grizzled old-timer with one last punch to throw, but they all pull it off with more conviction than, say, Robert De Niro trying to stomp on that guy in the otherwise pretty flawless THE IRISHMAN.
Paced perfectly, handsomely mounted, well-performed and blessed with solid production values in every respect; what VFW lacks in terms of character development, it really makes up for as a slice of gory entertainment which shamelessly glorifies violent action thrillers of yore. And it does it really effortlessly, in a way that's impressively much more controlled than all the other so-called "retro" flicks of recent years - including Begos's own earlier works.
VFW will receive its official UK premiere on the big screen at Glasgow's FrightFest shindig at the Glasgow Film Theatre on 7th March, ahead of its Digital Download release on 9th March. There's no word on a physical UK release as of yet. One can only hope.
We viewed the film via an online link for reviewing purposes. Presented uncut in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio, it looked superb in a HD presentation with clean, clear and vibrant visuals throughout. English stereo audio was also consistently reliable.
I'm a sceptic when it comes to modern films trying to emulate the formulas of Golden Era exploitation films. They generally tend to be over-the-top cartoons which bear no resemblance to the films many of us grew up on. I'm looking at you, TURBO KID, HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN etc. But VFW is a pitch perfect, expertly paced and finely nuanced fun riot. The set-up is more satisfying than the last half of the film, which admittedly descends into fighting for the most part, but by-and-large this comes highly recommended.
On the strength of this, Begos is genuinely a name to keep in mind.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Directed by Joe Begos|