Wednesday, May 6, 2020

VFW (2019) Blu-ray Review

VFW (2019) d. Joe Begos (USA) (92 min)

After attempting to stretch with his modern vampire flick Bliss, Begos crashes back to earth, seemingly content in being the worst kind of Tarantino imitator, i.e. interested only in serving up “tributes” of established tropes and subgenres under his own byline. Having done body snatcher (Almost Human) and psychokinetic (The Mind’s Eye) flicks, he now offers up a siege film (Assault on Precinct 13 is the obvious model and, yes, I know that John Carpenter was himself riffing off Rio Bravo, thank you very much) combined with Stallone’s The Expendables series by hiring over-the-hill cult actors (Stephen Lang, William Sadler, Martin Kove, Daniel Patrick Kelly, George Wendt, Fred Williamson) to play a group of retired soldiers defending their local watering hole from a horde of strung-out (and wildly ineffectual) druggies.

The first problem (of many) is that the dialogue scripted by Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle is neither as clever or sharp as it seems to think it is, leaving the aging cast members with egg on their faces time and again. More to the point, Begos has assembled a half a dream cast and then only given half of them anything to do. Seriously, why would you bring Wendt onboard and not give him any good lines or even a memorable death scene? Why hire Kelly, the guy who ran chills down the spine with clinking bottles and a sing-song “Warriors, come out and play-ee-ayyyy” and park him on the bar top for nearly the entirety of the movie’s running time? You get Kove, the original Cobra Kai dude who told his students to sweep the leg without a blink, and don’t even give him a good goddam zinger? When there are more obvious missed opportunities than squibs exploding, we’ve got a problem, Houston.

I also say “half” a dream cast because the younger ensemble members are wanting, to say the least. Whoever thought that skinny Travis Hammer would make for a worthy antagonist if they dressed him up in a studded leather jacket was not on their game that day, and Dora Madison, so natural and live-wire in Bliss, is guilty of the worst kind of badass posturing, even going so far as to deepen her voice to seem more intimidating. Meanwhile, Sierra McCormick, as the annoying pipsqueak who sets the whole plot in motion by stealing a cache of drugs from a conveniently if inexplicably open safe (d’oh!) and taking refuge in the bar, generates zero sympathy from either the veterans or the audience with her whiny and entitled demeanor.

Only Tom Williamson (no relation to Fred) makes a positive impression as a recently returned Iraqi soldier looking to get home to his wife, allying his estimable fighting skills alongside the codgers as they make their stand, and I’ll also give a passing grade to editor/producer Josh Ethier for serving triple duty as Boz’s hulking enforcer Tank.

I suppose Begos regulars composer Steve Moore and cinematographer Mike Testin deserve credit for fulfilling their aural and visual directives to make VFW feel like a cheap 1980s effort, but it’s a hollow accomplishment within a hollow piece of cinema. The splattery gore effects by Josh and Sierra Russell are the only thing that make an impression, but even they lose their allure after the 17th exploding head or severed limb. (Also, we are shown dozens of Boz’s followers, but for some reason they only attack a few at a time and have a nasty habit of just standing in doorways waiting to get skewered or bludgeoned. LAME.)

I now completely understand the film’s reputation as a festival hit since it feels tailor-made to generate audience goodwill. A cast of neglected genre faves in a low-budget effort attempting to conjure the nostalgia of a bygone era, punctuated by explosions, one-liners, and bodily fluids running down the wall? And it’s produced by Fangoria Films? I mean, what’s not to like? I can vividly imagine the hoots and hollers of an appreciative crowd predisposed to applaud every arterial spray or snarled retort. But within the more sedate home viewing confines, the script’s plot holes and rampant stupidity are glaring, as is the fact that not one of the characters has anything resembling an arc from A to B much less Z. (Lang is a taciturn badass from the opening frame, Sadler an obnoxious loser, Williamson an aging warrior, etc.)

In the end, it’s just another scrappy Begos exercise in repurposed style over substance, which is fine when you’re a no-budget operation with no recognizable faces trying to make a name for yourself. But once you’re on your fourth feature and utilizing legit talent like Lang (who also exec-produced alongside Brallier and McArdle), it’s time to step up your game, Joe.


Audio Commentary with director Joe Begos and cast

Audio Commentary with director Joe Begos and crew

The Making of VFW (4 min)

Meet the Cast of VFW (4 min)

Special Make-Up Effects of VFW (4 min)

VFW is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from RLJ Entertainment and can be ordered on a variety of retail platforms.


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