I Declare War, the Drafthouse Films movie that comes out today, could be a formulaic and derivative war film, as it contains all of the traditional war film archetypes. It has a friend held hostage, a battle of wits with a villain that is suffering a mental breakdown, sacrifice, betrayal, revenge, and shifting loyalties. This would have been a movie made a thousand times over if it starred adults.
The film, about a game of capture the flag that becomes surprisingly real, shows that Jason Lapeyre is a director who knows his craft. As the movie goes on, you can close your eyes, and hear the opening to Saving Private Ryan in I Declare War's violence and flying bullets, and the language that is being bandied about. I Declare War is a movie inspired by every war film that has ever been made, from the Colonel Kurtz-like villain, to a scene that cleverly references the ambush from Full Metal Jacket, to the poster for the movie, which is clearly a reference to Platoon. Which is why it's all the more shocking when you open your eyes, and realize that the movie shows children engaging in combat. I Declare War embraces all its predecessors, and cleverly and subtly satirizes them.
Photo courtesy I Declare War.
The film's titular war is far more violent and realistic than the games of cowboys versus Indians that their grandparents might have enjoyed as children. The fighting is gritty, realistic, and horrifying. As a result, I Declare War serves as a scathing criticism of society, and the violence to which we expose our children. The children know what weapons look like, what they do, how to use them, and how to kill, and they don't see anything wrong with it. The characters don't refer to each other by first names, only last names and call-signs (e.g., Joker, Skinner, P.K., and Frost), and they use language that implies their exposure to violence in the media. (One character explains how he is going to torture another, and one character repeatedly calls another a "chink.") At one point, the protagonist, P.K., asks his friend Kwon if he wants to come over to watch the movie Patton, to which Kwon replies, "Again?" These are children that were raised on violence, and revel in it.
Because of its graphic violence, vulgar and racist language, and the ways in which the children interact, I Declare War is both more disturbing and more fascinating than Lord of the Flies. It highlights the true barbarity that we glorify in actual war films (and actual war), so long as we consider the adults involved to be "good guys." The children's perspective enables us to see how much society has failed them, and to a larger extent, ourselves.
Photo courtesy I Declare War.
At times, I Declare War, works better as a philosophical exercise than a film. The visual effects vary from outstanding (firefights) to borderline cheesy (laser vision). Additionally, some characters work better than others. For instance, the win-at-all-costs P.K. and the vengeful Skinner are terrific and fully fleshed, while the wild card, Caleb, and the only female in the movie (who's motives and desires remain murky) just leave you wanting more. Lead actors Michael Friend and Mackenzie Munro deliver top-notch performances, and the latter portrays the most engrossing character in the film. For a film that exclusively features child actors, I Declare War is surprisingly not awful (looking at you, Jake Lloyd), and the deeper message is lightened by the humor found in the children's perceptions of the world, from "Would you rather?" questions to tween romances. Lapeyre successfully blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Overall, I Declare War is a smart, sometimes funny, and bold take on both society and war, and is a must-see film.