Fantastic Fest 2019: VFW: Silver Screen Legends Assemble, Battle Mutant Punks in John Carpenter…

A cast for the ages

Surprises are one of the very best elements of film festivals. And let me tell you, there’s no greater surprise than to be seated for a film you know very little about and to learn that Fred “The Hammer” Williamson is in the cast.

Filmmaker Joe Begos is having quite a Fantastic Fest, what with the world premiere of VFW screening along with a 35mm print of his other 2019 film Bliss as a potential double feature for the Fantastic Fest guests. Having finished and tech checked VFW on Wednesday, it is safe to say that he and his team were coming in hot to this world premiere screening. It’s also fairly safe to say that VFW blew the lid off the festival as a major contender for the most crowd pleasing screening of the year.

The references and homages of VFW are worn right on Begos’ (cut-off, tattooed) sleeves. This is Assault On Precinct 13 for the opioid crisis era. It’s Rio Bravo with a cast of so many legends you’re almost obliged to reference The Expendables. And with those descriptions, it’s pretty easy to categorize and ingest exactly what Begos was going for with this hard-R action comedy gore fest.

But the movie also has a genuine heart. And that’s what makes the difference. The major players and denizens of this VFW outpost include Stephen Lang, Fred Williamson, William Sadler, Martin Kove, David Patrick Kelly, and George Wendt. For no less than a half an hour, we’re treated to an opening act of these friends tossing verbal barbs at one another, reminiscing about their glory days, and generally causing us to fall in love with them. They’re ornery old soldiers, and Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle’s script does a great job of distinguishing each of them, giving them stories and personalities and shining a beaming spotlight on these actors that film fans absolutely know and love. Each screen legend is treated with the utmost respect to their own legends and given iconic hero moments that most of them probably thought were behind them as far as their careers are concerned. But just as importantly, their off screen personas serve as fodder for building up the on screen characters. Not only do we care about these guys and want to see them live through this siege, but several of their characters have actual arcs or at the very least they have some substance to them beyond mere cameos of silver screen legends. Look, there was a lot to enjoy in the Expendables films, but very frequently the legends assembled for those films simply played themselves, winking and nodding at the camera. VFW side steps those issues and its greatest accomplishment is in being a love letter to its cast, but also to its characters.

I’m no chest thumping patriot, but I do love the simplicity of the heroism our veterans display in VFW. When Lizard (Sierra McCormick) rushes in the doors of our heroes’ VFW outpost with drug addled mutants on her tail, our heroes shoot first and ask questions later. (Mostly because the punks are mid-murder right through the gates). As the audience has seen, but our heroes don’t know, next door to our outpost is a Hype dealer with an army of mutant users dying for their next score. Hype is the fictional drug outlined in the on-screen text which gives VFW an even more Carpenter vibe along with a mild sci-fi angle as this drug turns its users into mutants and turns this society into a bit of an apocalyptic wasteland. Lizard steals the villains’ supply of Hype when she finds her own sister dead at the hands of the villainous dealer. Once Lizard holes up in the VFW, our heroes take it upon themselves to defend her. Lang’s character Fred is celebrating a birthday, is the proprietor of this outpost, and serves as a de facto commander for this ragtag platoon. He’s tough as nails and keeps our heroes on the narrow path even as their ranks thin and the temptation to give up or trade out the drugs heightens. He’s the absolute hero of VFW, but even he needs reminders of who he can be at his best as he forms a sweet, paternal friendship with Lizard.

There simply couldn’t be a more “feels like it was made just for me” film at Fantastic Fest this year. I’ve seen truly dozens upon dozens of the films this cast has starred in. I’ve probably seen 20+ Fred Williamson movies alone, and this dashing, cigar chomping, octogenarian strides through this film with unflagging charisma and charm. The Warriors is one of my all-time favorite movies, and there’s David Patrick Kelly saluting a bunch of mutant punks with a defiant middle finger. Martin Kove is having a moment as he stars in the excellent Cobra Kai series and digs his teeth into this role as a former soldier turned wheeler-dealer car salesman. William Sadler takes on the best friend role as Fred’s right hand man and foxhole friend. It’s just the stuff of movie magic when legends like these are treated with the respect they deserve and when an entire feature film is crafted around them to shine a light on them.

It’s not all roses as there can occasionally be a style over substance feel to Begos’ projects. It’s a distinctive, unapologetic, heavy metal kind of vibe he injects into his projects. And while that’s a vibe I very much connect with here, it can occasionally overpower the other ingredients. The action direction could also use a little polish. Where the script does a phenomenal job of giving the cast hero moments, the actual battles and fights could have used a more assured hand. There’s practical gore and deliciously fun violence, to be sure. Everything from axes to machetes to barstools with nails protruding are used to great effect. It’s just that Begos, while paying homage to Carpenter or John Ford, doesn’t quite yet have the mastery of those legends. These concerns do not sink this project in any way because this cast and crew have assembled an incredible recipe and baked in enough high quality ingredients to produce something absolutely special and endlessly watchable.

And I’m Out.

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