[FANTASTIC FEST 2019] ‘VFW’ IS JOE BEGOS’S FINEST JOHN CARPENTER APPRECIATION

 

 

Joe Begos is a pastiche artist. I mean that in the best way possible. His films drip with love for the ‘80s video exploitation he grew up on, which he repurposes into authentic recreations he’s seemingly transported directly from the musty aisles of mom-and-pop stores which he grew up in. At times he sometimes verges too close to being a purveyor of wax museums replicas — his 2015 psychic thriller THE MIND’S EYE, as fun as it is, is essentially just a lost Trimark SCANNERS sequel — but he has an uncanny knack for making you feel like you are watching something ripped straight from late night cable TV. With VFW, Begos has refined his schlock-admirer filmmaking. He isn’t just mimicking his inspirations; he’s burning them into his soul.

 

VFW has the feel of John Carpenter directing one of his RIO BRAVO siege pics through the lens of a greasy Troma splatter opera as written by Larry Cohen. It’s the tale of a cadre of leathery old war vets doing battle with the slavering punk mutants who have holed up, like a raucous junkie cult, in an abandoned theater across the street. There’s not much more to the movie than that. Like the best siege flicks its an elemental act of tough-nut survival: old coots vs. drooling leather-clad drugoid-zombie freak-monster-hooligans.

 

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Fred (Stephen Lang) is spending his birthday doing what he always does: gruffly opening the dingy VFW where he slings booze and holds court for a crew of gnarled, aging old war vets that he calls his friends. Among them are the weathered, tough-guy Korean war vet Abe (Fred Williamson), the sweetly portly Z (George Wendt) and Fred’s actual military buddies — they served with him way back in Vietnam — Walter (William Sadler), whose never grown out of his cheerful pussyhound horndog phase (he’s trying to get Fred to go to close early to go to  a strip joint birthday soiree that night) and Lou (Martin Kove), the most successful of these wrinkled macho warriors, who’s gone on to a career as a smarmily endearing glad-handing used car salesman huckster.

 

Into this den of gently ribbing old waar stories comes Sean (Tom Williamson), a young veteran of a more recent war, and Lizard (Sierra McCormick), a frazzled punk derelict who has stolen several kilos of a popular new drug called Hype from the safe of Box (Travis Hammer), the writhing, sneering leather-daddy drug-lord Jesus-figure leader of the addicts across the street. Lizard has stolen the drugs as a supreme “fuck you” to Boz over the death of her sister, and now, Boz has sent his feral pack of lumbering psyched-out followers to get it back, and destroy anyone in the process.

 

There’s nothing complex about VFW — it’s a cheerfully gory meathead slashathon, full of bodies being torn asunder in a myriad creatively nasty ways. And that’s okay. Begos, a talented directed too often beholden to his influences, got his Art Freak Weirdo on recently with BLISS, a frenetic punk vampire psychological art-horror apocalypse that’s like Abel Ferrara doing lines with the makers of STREET TRASH and COMBAT SHOCK. That film is easily Begos’s best — in its bravura, in-your-face way, it feels like the first that shows his personality outside of his video collection — but VFW feels like a synthesis of that film and his earlier work: now that he’s got that cry of primal rage out, he can go back to making films that homage the grisly 1980s horror he grew up on, only now he’s making films that are 100% his own. The irony is that this is the first film that Begos didn’t write, but, in its way, it feels like a maturation of his own synth-magpie style.  

 

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He’s also used the occasion to take VFW’s script (written by Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle) and turn it into a love letter of sorts, to the kind of laconically seasoned brutes he’s cast his movie with. There’s no question that the likes of Lang , Sadler and Kove get typecast as the gnarled, aging villains menacing the heroes; Lang , for example, is probably best known as the sneering military-asshole villain of AVATAR or as the violently assaultive blind baddie of DON’T BREATHE. Here, though, Begos has assembled them together not to play their usual aged-lowlife creeps, but to showcase their talents and have them play hard-bitten coot heroes, and they run with it. Lang, most often cornered into villain roles, displays a hardened, tersely protective warmth, while Sadler has a lot of fun as a joyfully horndog goof who has never let his age, nor his sex-obsessed joie de vivre, dampen the fight in him. The real discovery, though, might be Kove. The actor is best known for his role as Kreese in the KARATE KID movies but here, he makes Lou a compellingly likeable sleazebag hero, forever keeping us guessing as to whether or not he’ll turn into the kind of suave-huckster coward you see in films like this.

 

Begos keeps things moving at a rapid clip and when he isn’t inundating us with cleverly staged violent mayhem, he’s allowing us to luxuriate in the brothers-to-the-end, shit-talking chemistry between his take-no-bull macho heroes. Begos isn’t interested in politics; there’s very little old-guy-vs-young-punk anti-millennial commentary here, and the guys are presented as out-of-touch elder ruffians (nor are they venerated as such.) Instead, Begos is more interested in orchestrating as much bodily destruction as amusingly possible. There’s no rancorous commentary to be found in VFW and that’s fine. It isn’t meant to be there. What VFW is, is Begos’s serenade to a forgotten generation of character actors — and his cinematic tribute to one of his forebears, a glorious, Carpenter-aping apocalypse of ’80s-style destruction.

 

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Johnny Donaldson

Freelance writer, actor andproducer of KILLING BROOKE.
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