The concept is thought-provoking but the execution is flat-footed in “I Declare War,” an allegorical drama about adolescent adversaries who reveal their true colors during a Capture the Flag game that gets entirely out of hand. There are bits of “If … ” here, some “Lord of the Flies” there, and a light sprinkling of “Bugsy Malone” all over the concoction. And yet, for all that, co-directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson do little more than repeatedly echo the pic’s theme after establishing the basic conceit of Lapeyre’s script in the opening minutes. Expect a rapid retreat to homescreen platforms.
The plot unfolds entirely in a densely wooded area where two teams of preteens wage a guerrilla war that is no less intense for being more recreational than real. Armed with sticks, paintballs and fake guns both store-bought and handmade, they clash in skirmishes controlled by agreed-upon rules. Base camps must remain in fixed locations. A soldier “killed” by gunfire must remain motionless until the count of 10 steamboats. But anyone pelted with a paintball is very seriously dead, and must go home. And everyone must fight fair until one team claims the other’s flag.
Very early on, however, the pic demonstrates that, in war games as in every other activity known to man, rules often are broken while contestants pursue victory.
One army is led by PK (Gage Munroe), a resourceful tactician who’s determined to sustain his unbroken winning streak, even as he adheres to traditional codes of honor. On the other side, however, the appreciably less honorable Skinner (Michael Friend) stages a coup so he can be all that he can be without the tempering influence of Quinn (Aidan Gouveia), a conscientious commander who’s fragged with a paintball.
Skinner, an overweight bully who fears “even the retards are more popular” than he is, overcompensates with ruthlessness. He bends the rules by taking a prisoner, Paul (Siam Yu), PK’s best friend, then passes the time between battles by engaging in what can only be described as advanced interrogation techniques.
Helmers Lapeyre and Wilson depict everything through the perspectives of their young characters, often amping the pyrotechnics during fantasy sequences where fake weapons are replaced with actual artillery, and gun barrels appear to blaze like real guns firing real bullets, accompanied by appropriate sounds.
Predictably, the line between reality and fantasy is purposefully blurred; the guns may not be real, but they’re shown to fire bullets capable of blasting bark off trees. But even the sight of a 13-year-old brandishing an AK-47 isn’t nearly as unsettling as those moments when Skinner places a large wooden board atop the bound Paul, and then places cement blocks on that board.
And there’s something borderline creepy about the way the filmmakers sexualize the one female warrior in the bunch, Jess (Mackenzie Munro), a nubile young lovely who wants to be taken seriously as a strategist, but appears to exist in the pic solely to stoke the fantasies of her male comrades while indulging in some of her own.
Performances range from barely adequate to uncomfortably stiff. Oddly enough, however, the awkwardness of the actors actually enhances the blunt-force impact when characters matter-of-factly reveal in profanity-filled dialogue their casual racism, sexism, homophobia, sadism and other unattractive traits. To put it another way: They don’t always seem like they’re acting.
“I Declare War” doesn’t exactly cover fresh ground in its persistent insistence that all wars, even play wars, bring out the worst in all people, even — or maybe especially — children. Trouble is, after stating the obvious, the filmmakers don’t really add anything new to the subject. Rather, they simply keep pushing the point they want to make, until it becomes blunted by repetition.
The final scene comes as a relief, partly because it isn’t quite the violent conflagration that the audience has been led to expect, but largely because, well, it’s the final scene.