Old Dogs, by Bob Connally

27 Feb

In 2010, Sylvester Stallone assembled a collection of big name action stars for The Expendables, what turned out to be a kind of sad attempt to reclaim ’80s glory. 2018 saw the much quieter release of Black Water, a film that trotted Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren onto an unconvincing submarine for one of the most boring action movies I’ve ever seen. Also, as of this moment Harrison Ford nears the beginning of production on a fifth Indiana Jones film and his 78th birthday. Expectations are not high. So why then does VFW work so well? It’s in part because, unlike The Expendables or Black Water, it doesn’t attempt to protect the vanity of its stars. Their ages are not only acknowledged but essential to the mentalities of the characters.

Written by Max Brallier and Matthew McArdle and directed by Joe Begos, VFW is set in a town hanging on by a thread thanks to the prevalence of a new highly addictive drug called hype. The local VFW bar run by Fred (Stephen Lang) is a refuge for himself and his old Vietnam war buddies. So much so that he even picks some of them up on his way in to work. There’s the chatty Walter (William Sadler), the slimy used car salesman Lou (Martin Kove), easy going Doug (David Patrick Kelly who you will remember as Sully from the greatest movie ever made, Commando), Thomas (George Wendt, who was cast for obvious reasons), and finally Korean War vet, Abe (Fred Williamson). They are also joined by Shawn (Tom Williamson), a young soldier who has just returned from Afghanistan. 

Walter suggests closing early so that they can head out to celebrate Fred’s birthday, something Fred is not so eager to do. Just before they can leave however a young woman carrying a backpack frantically runs inside, quickly followed by a couple of very large men with weapons. Before it’s clear what is happening or why, these vets have no choice but to spring into action. As it happens, the backpack that the woman who goes by Lizard (Sierra McCormick) is carrying is full of hype. This makes Fred’s bar the target of gang leader Boz (Travis Hammer) and his army of goons. It’s time for Fred and his war buddies to make one last stand.

VFW is produced by Fangoria, the company that produced an incredibly popular magazine of the same name through the ’80s and ’90s, focused on horror films. As it is, Begos’ movie blends the sensibility of B-action movies of the ’70s and ’80s with the style, violence, and gore of B-horror films of the same era. It feels like it would be best enjoyed in an independent movie theater at a midnight screening. Having watched it on demand, as of course most people who see it will, I can say that it works just fine at home, though it would be a lot of fun to see with an appreciative audience. Begos keeps things moving nicely and the violence and action is just what one would hope for from a movie like this. He does drop the ball a bit at times in terms of the bar being too dark to see what’s happening in some scenes and during one particularly frenetically edited battle it’s unclear in a few shots just who is being hacked by a sword.

What really holds this all together though is the cast, all of whom know exactly what kind of film they’re in but take it seriously. Lang has made a career of playing scenery chewing villains but here he is the grounded hero. Like his friends, his character Fred has been carrying the deep scars of his war experience for decades. All of them are clearly alcoholics and if any of them have families they never mention them. The real highlight of the cast is Sadler, whose Walter is the most fun character in the film. You can’t help but smile every moment he’s on screen. Fred Williamson is a blast to watch as well. Kove’s Lou meanwhile, strongly recalls the ill-fated Ellis from Die Hard in a way that’s impossible to miss.

It’s not that we really believe this handful of aging men could handle an untold number of large, younger gang members, it’s that this is the sort of movie where that doesn’t matter. We’re rooting for these characters against all odds and victory seeming impossible is the point. Most of them are, after all, veterans of the one war that America notably lost. While this obviously isn’t a serious look into the minds of Vietnam veterans, it’s effectively used in the film’s context.

VFW is certainly not a movie for everybody – and what movie truly is? – but it’s a very entertaining time if you enjoy well-executed B-action and horror movies. If cult movies can even happen anymore, VFW deserves to become one.

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