The ripest imagination resides in the mind of a child. There are little cares for what is accepted or cool, and the mind is allowed to explore as far as it can possibly go. It’s why children possess such strong fears. An adult recognizes the unfounded belief of bed dwelling monsters while a child has no problem imagining it to be true. In our youth our games are not what we hold in our hands but what we hold in our minds. Nothing is as it seems, the fantastic is possible and there are few things with as much potential as a large, empty cardboard box. The one thing lacking from the childhood mind is experience, an appreciation of the actualities of the world that could only assist in the mental playground. I Declare War has no problem merging the two and what results is a wondrous mixture of familiar and brand new.
PK (Gage Munroe) has never lost a game of War. He holds onto the flags of his past wins with great honor. But it all feels somewhat incomplete as he has never faced an opponent that holds a comparable understanding of strategy. This time it’s different. His adversary is Quinn (Aidan Gouveia), a strategist cut from the same cloth with a view of War as the chess match that it is. Unfortunately, Skinner (Michael Friend) has a history with PK and hatches a plan that threatens to overshadow the very game itself.
The 80s were a time for the action star. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger led a bombastically violent charge of films that seemed to have just as much dialogue as explosions. Dripping with muscles, they were testosterone pumped directly into your eyes. Nostalgia being as lucrative as it is, the aging stars are now attempting to cash in on their lineage of machismo, The Expendables series being the most blatant grab at our yearning for the films of yesterday. Admittedly, it just isn’t the same. Predator, Robocop and First Blood were all films that we enjoyed not simply for their over-the-top crashes but because they were something different. Their cartoonish levels of violence and penchant for the perfectly placed one liner nearly established a genre all their own. Now it feels like little more than a retread. We see what you’re trying to do, but don’t just repeat yourself; we want more. I Declare War is catered to the fans of this old mode of action, but has no problem asserting itself as something new.
The rules of the film are simple, just as the game of War itself. However, what makes it interesting is the commitment from all involved. It can be a bit difficult to put together how the universe works, with the very real looking guns that the children carry. However, this isn’t some take on a dystopian future, but rather an illustration of the warped child mind. Media has directly affected these children, and they have been influenced by the war and action films of time gone by. We see exactly what they believe they are doing. The action is typically intense, but is later undercut by the reactions that don’t happen. When some of the kids stop believing, and gunshots go unfelt, stick guns unable to become anything more, it illustrates how some of the participants are taking things too far. Most interestingly is that underneath the shock value of children uttering racist epithets is a lingering commentary on war. PK is distracted so completely by his need to win that he sacrifices all of the relationships in his life. In fact, only a couple of the characters aren’t entirely screwed up, and judging by the frequency with which they appear to play War, the game isn’t blameless.
Co-directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson treat their characters like adults, but manage to maintain a modicum of adolescent innocence. The diminutive stature of the cast only makes the surrounding forest look all the more vast. The special effects work when they need to, but the practical use of paint-filled balloons as grenades is a stroke of brilliance. When characters “die” they are caked in “blood” and the image makes their departure from the game all the more dramatic. The amateur acting of the cast occasionally slips, but never distractingly so. They carry logs with the same gravity as they carry machine guns. Unfortunately, the film has the habit of going for a bit too much, the Jess storyline seems out-of-place and incomplete, and many of the threads are left dangling. When you strip away all of the surrounding clutter, which can occasionally be cumbersome in its ubiquity, the central plot and a strong turn from Gage Munroe as the victory obsessed PK is strong enough to support the film.
There aren’t many films like I Declare War. Lord of the Flies has more gravity and Commando less realism. The stakes are usually fabricated and it’s hard to lose sight of the fact that these are children. Nevertheless, the film is always entertaining. It deftly volleys between laughs and gripping tension. Most will be distracted by its central trope, that of children carrying automatic weaponry and treating war as if it is nothing more than a game, but there is definitely more going on than just that. Just as much as it posits the triviality of war, it acts as a commentary on the emotional ramifications of bullying in its many forms. The film succeeds because it stays away from parody. The characters react genuinely and there is a deep commitment from all involved. I Declare War is delightfully self aware, unendingly fresh and just may be one of the best war films of the past few years.
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