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Kids With Guns Open Fire in Honest, Imperfect “I Declare War” Review

For those who would bristle at the sight of preteens toting submachine guns (a tragic reality in some parts of the world), Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson’s I Declare War should be momentarily thought provoking, if not particularly challenging. The film captures a game of War, forts and flags and wooden pistols a-plenty, and then proceeds to meld fantasy with reality as the guns become real and war-movie-cliches come to the fore. It’s all in the minds of the participants of course, and the film stresses rivalries and hurt feelings that are far more potent weapons than sticks and the occasional barrage of stones. Once you move past the initial incongruity of children playacting as soldiers with the proper weaponry at hand, I Declare War delivers genuine tension as it toes the fine line between imaginary fun and actual danger delivered by emotionally unstable kids with grudges that threaten to devour them.

Either an unstoppable strategist or just a tad smarter, General PK (Gage Munroe) leads his boys in a ground war against Quinn (Aidan Gouivea), whose team includes the volatile Skinner (Michael Friend) and Jess (Mackenzie Munro, in a standout performance), the only girl in a game dominated by faux masculinity. When Skinner comes across Kwon (Siam Yu), currently PK’s best friend, the former breaks the rules and takes Kwon prisoners, hauling him before Quinn in hopes of luring PK out. Quinn attempts to assert control, Skinner not so much stages as throws a coup, and the game takes on a sudden urgency as Kwon is interrogated with increasing cruelty by Skinner and PK haunts the forest in an attempt to find the base, capture the flag and win yet another game. Meanwhile, Jess finds that for all the posturing, the boys are none too bright when facing off against a girl thinking a few move ahead and unafraid to use her budding charms to shatter alliances.

Lapeyre and Wilson direct a sizeable cast, which leads to a mix of fleshed out performances and slighter stock characters. Friend is tasked with granting pathos to the unlikable Skinner and he largely succeeds by establishing Skinner’s resolve not to be labeled as a “loser” and how his efforts actually do more to cement that reputation than dissolve it. Munro as Jess is terrific, if only for the distinctive personality she adapts, neither attempting to play the part as “one of the boys” nor angling for popularity as a hanger-on. It’s a sly, seductive turn, with feigned innocence her greatest weapon.

Part of the fun is watching the gravitas of the war deflated by adolescent behavior – these are children, after all, still trying on curse words and throwing tantrums, frustrated by their shortcomings and often afraid. The vulnerability of the cast helps give the film an emotional center that’s otherwise masked by the competently shot action and a simplistic plot. Several threads do not get resolved, most curiously those involving the Altar Boy (Andy Reid), whose affiliation with faith and inability to commit imaginary violence put him at odds with PK’s crew. His final scenes suggest a psychological complexity that’s unfortunately left untouched – if there was a point for the film to make, it would’ve been then but instead we barrel onward toward the finale.

I Declare War is far from disappointing, but does feel a bit undercooked. The concept itself is great fun and the cast clearly carefully selected, their chemistry one of the film’s chief pleasures. Yet, for all the action and back-and-forth that unfolds onscreen, there doesn’t seem to be much under the surface. I’m puzzled by what the film is saying by bringing fantasy to life – are the kids living out a fun-house version of reality based on a steady diet of action classics, video games and news footage? Maybe having these young men and woman arm themselves allows their fantasy to become a bastion against the cruelties of their teenage years; an often merciless, inscrutable time where being branded a “loser” is a life sentence. With that in mind, I Declare War is a rewarding watch, a kid’s movie that doesn’t talk down to it’s audience – and also one that’s unlikely to reach said kids due to the language and semi-realistic violence. Parents would do well to watch it with their children.

"I Declare War" opens August 30, 2013 and is not rated. Action, Thriller, War. Written and directed by Jason Lapeyre. Starring Gage Munroe, Mackenzie Munro, Michael Friend, Siam Yu.

Sep
01
2013
Mark Zhuravsky • Staff Writer

I'm a prolific blogger, writer and editor who loves film.

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