As someone who grew up in the 80’s, I’m very familiar with the cinematic influences behind the new action film VFW. Director Joe Begos is clearly an 80’s child, too — spiritually, not physically, since he’s only in his early 30’s. His love for Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Warriors is evident in every frame of VFW.
Throw those films into a blender along with military fish-out-of-water movies like Southern Comfort, Uncommon Valor and First Blood, and you’re in the same ballpark as this enjoyable genre mash-up.
What sets VFW apart from the recent wave of 80’s nostalgia is its soul. The film has a big beating heart at its center that captures not only the look of those 80’s classics, but the feel of them. You genuinely care about the characters. The audience has skin in this game.
It’s very clever meta-shorthand. These actors mean so much to their legions of fans that viewers feel invested from the very first frame, and then as we get to know these versions of their screen selves, we double down on our emotional investment in the outcome. This film has “stakes” as film critics love to say.
A group of retired vets (played by William Sadler, Martin Kove, Fred Williamson, David Patrick Kelly, and George Wendt) are gathering at the local VFW to honor the reluctant birthday boy in their group (played by Stephen Lang). They are joined by a young soldier coming home from a tour in the desert. When a young woman bursts into the bar, fleeing a gang of drug-dealing street thugs, the men defend their turf and suddenly find themselves in over their heads, relying on skills they put down long ago, but haven’t forgotten.
Screenwriters Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle wisely allow the narrative to build slowly, giving the audience time to hang out with this iconic cast. Back stories are wisely kept to a minimum. No lengthy explanations are needed.
These are former brothers in arms who may have outgrown their youth but retain the spirit and drive of their younger selves. I could’ve watched the cast improv in a bar for hours. It’s the kind of place you’d kill to be a fly on the wall in.
Once the action kicks in, it never lets up. It’s a perfectly staged siege film with one great practical effect after another. The lo-fi, high-grain 35mm look of the film gives it a gritty realism while simultaneously capturing the feel of its cinematic predecessors.
Even with the resurgence of 80’s-style synth scores, Steve Moore’s work on VFW is a cut above. It works on several levels, creating an overall sense of atmosphere for the film and providing a pumping, pulsating rhythm to the action.
The film had its world premiere last year at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas where I was in attendance. It was a packed house that audibly cheered every step of the way. There was no discussion about a specific timetable for rolling the film out to theaters and VOD outlets.
But now, the film is finally available on all digital platforms. The Blu-ray hits shelves on March 31st. If you love action films, VFW is a blast. Don’t miss this one.