[Please note that this movie was viewed and this review was written before the Daily Beast article about Cinestate. The article indicates that there was alleged misconduct that occurred on the set of VFW. Given the fall out from the article, I felt it was only fair to mention it here and link to it. — BL]
VFW has a pretty clean setup. A girl is on the run from a gang of drugged up crazies. She winds up in a VFW bar and the old grizzled vets help the girl to try and survive the assault.
You know what you are in for when, literally just a couple of minutes into VFW, a leather clad punk chick puts a giant blade right into the forehead of another character: The camera doesn’t pull away, the flesh squelches, and the blood spurts. And suddenly I was back in the 80s watching action oriented, synth-laden, bloodfests. Which hey, turns out to be the exact right frame of mind for VFW, a John Carpenter influenced action horror flick where the characters have only one goal, survive the night.
John Carpenter probably has the biggest fingerprint on the horror genre as we know it today. But it’s a fingerprint that can be quite smudgy at times. Too often, filmmakers influenced by John Carpenter learn only superficial lessons or they learn the wrong ones. And if the choice is to watch an overt Carpenter exercise without a pulse, heartbeat, or any character of its own or something from the master, well, the choice is easy. While Carpenter’s influence is all over VFW, it never gets in the way and Joe Begos has his own style and energy.
The look and feel is just right for that 70s/80s vibe largely because of the location and the actors involved. At the heart of the story is the characters. VFW works because character actor actors were used. If Begos had hired action stars, VFW wouldn’t work as well. Stephen Lang, Martin Kove, William Sadler, Fred Williamson, David Patrick Kelly, George Wendt are all older, heavier, and grayer. The viewer knows them all from other shows and movies and they bring the full weight of all of their cinematic experience to bear.
Most of the movie takes place in the bar. And it is a great piece of set work. The viewer always has a clear sense of the layout and that makes the action cleaner later on when things go crazy. It also looks and feels like a real lived in dive bar. It has depth and character all its own.
The character development comes from their actions and them sitting around bullshitting with each other, as old friends do. There’s a looseness to the conversations and interactions that belies how long these characters have known each other.
A word of caution though, male writers writing male characters in a male 80s way results in some moments of sexist clunker dialog. Thankfully though, there aren’t many instances and most of the movie is about gory action.
VFW is something like an Assault on VFW 13. If that sounds like your thing, it probably is.
(Non-spoiler PS – There is a wonderful visual gag that goes unremarked upon, sitting there waiting for the viewer to catch and laugh.)