With The Mind’s Eye and Bliss, director Joe Begos crafted near-perfect pastiches of 1980s psychokinetic thrillers and Abel Ferrara’s crackupsploitation hits. Here, working from a script by Max Braillier and Matthew McArdle, he sets his sights on a run of urban action, kill-some-punks pictures which kicked off with John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 but kept going throughout the VHS era in the likes of Siege, Savage Streets, Class of 1984, etc – with relatively recent items like Green Room and the underrated Nid de Guepes still flying the tattered flag.
A Carpenter-like synth thrumm sets the tension ratcheting even before battle starts – while a virtual platoon of aged tough guy actors prop up a bar at a VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) hostelry in the middle of an urban wasteland dominated by druglord Boz (Travis Hammer), who pushes an addictive new kick called Hype which (natch) turns its users into maniacal zombie-types. When Boz taunts a hypehead (Linnea Wilson) into jumping off a roof in search of a fix, and she splatters on the street like an overripe melon, the girl’s sister Lizard (Sierra McCormick) steals his stash and – like the grieving father in Assault – takes refuge in the bar, where Fred (Stephen Lang) is just ready to shut up shop so his buddies (George Wendt, William Sadler, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, David Patrick Kelly) can take him to a strip club for his birthday celebration. Being veterans of conflicts from Korea (!) onwards, the guys’ instinct is to stand and fight … but, given that Boz’s brother (Begos regular Graham Skipper) gets his head blown off in the first attack, they end up not having much choice. The grumbling geezers, all pretty drunk when the film starts, are augmented by a younger vet (Tom Williamson) who gets to join in the fun when the carnage really gets going.
It’s a pleasure just to see this cast together behaving badly – not the least bizarre aspect is that Fred Williamson has been in old guy getting the gang back together mode since Original Gangstas in 1996, but perhaps the most fun is Martin Kove, who will be forever tagged as the bad guy martial arts instructor from the Karate Kid films (rather than the lead in muscular direct-to-video vehicles like Steele Justice and Shadowchaser), as the slick used car salesman who is the only member of the crew inclined to negotiate before wielding a hockey stick against the baddies. If the political subtext is violently reactionary, then it was in the films this riffs on – though it’s dramatically problematic that Boz isn’t a villain iconic enough to intimidate the veteran good guys, and the only outcome it sees for the war on drugs is nuking users from orbit. Once the siege starts, the plot beats are laid out – shock losses, set-piece mutilation, bickering and bonding, successive waves of attacks, poignant death scenes for good guys and joke splatter demises for hypeheads, and a final stand that really ought to segue into a Frank Stallone end title song.
We tend to remember the movie brats of the 1970s and ‘80s as the defining filmmakers of their era – but VFW latches on to a parallel tradition, which included auteurs like Carpenter, Larry Cohen, Walter Hill and Michael Mann (a big booster of Stephen Lang’s early career) but also extended to meat-and-potatoes journeymen like John Flynn, William Lustig, James Glickenhaus, Joe Zito, Andrew Davis and Peter Hyams. These are the names that ought to be up on the memorial wall at this particular VFW.
VFW is available for digital download from March 9.