What surely would have made a good reality-TV series — three juvenile delinquents from the big city, plus an awkward kid with no friends, are dropped in the Scottish Highlands and left to find their way back to civilization — works even better as a dark comedy goof when a couple of lunatics start shooting at them from afar. The stakes are high, but so are half the characters in Ninian Doff’s irreverent survivalist satire, which makes this deranged camping trip — with its phallocentric hip-hop jams, improvised pyrotechnics and hallucinogenic rabbit droppings — all the more unforgettable.
As debut features go, “Get Duked!” — or “Boyz in the Wood,” as this future cult classic was called when it won an audience award at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival — serves as a distinctive calling card for a gifted yet twisted comedian, one without the slightest qualms about turning a bucolic countryside jaunt into a bloody “The Hills Have Eyes”-style hunting party. Music-video director Doff’s as wicked as Ben Wheatley and as wacky as Guy Ritchie in the style department, bringing urban attitude to this totally unexpected setting.
A tongue-in-cheek VHS-tape prologue instantly establishes the film’s offbeat tone, making the dorky pitch for something called the “Duke of Edinburgh Award,” which sounds like a royal waste of time for scally pals Dean (Rian Gordon), Duncan (Lewis Gribben) and William (Viraj Juneja). The latter insists on being referred to by his (latest) hip-hop handle, DJ Beatroot, and could well be the breakout star of the bunch, the way John Boyega stole the not-dissimilar “Attack the Block” nearly a decade earlier.
With their tough talk and stoned expressions, these three represent innocuous caricatures of “wasted youth” — the sort of slackers who defy normal disciplinary measures. There’s something immediately appealing about stranding such streetwise characters in the middle of nowhere, inappropriately dressed in a spot-on wardrobe of designer tracksuits and hooded sweatshirts, without cell reception, weed or their mommies. Heck, some audiences might approve of the idea of “culling” society of such troublemakers — the sinister motive, soon revealed, behind their field trip.
No sooner do the boys disembark the school van than DJ Beatroot sticker-bombs the nearest boulder. Meanwhile, his buddies are too inattentive to notice all the missing-persons flyers on the sign behind them — or the fourth passenger who made the trip with them: a hopelessly square homeschooling case named Ian (Samuel Bottomley) whose parents volunteered him for the expedition, hoping it would socialize their introverted son.
The trip’s chaperone, Mr. Carlyle (Jonathan Aris), gives the lads a paper map and a few basic directions and turns them loose in the “wild” (basically, a rolling lot of hills and farms). “To be honest, the whole thing is fraught with danger,” he says. “Really, I’m amazed they let teenagers do it.” Frankly, these kids are more annoyed than intimidated by the challenge, and so they amble for a few hours, cutting up as youngsters are wont to do while someone ominously observes them from a distance, studying these easy targets through a rifle scope.
Before long, “the Duke” makes his presence known (it’s exec producer Eddie Izzard clad in a poncy tartan kilt and tattered skin mask), and he’s such a lousy aim that he hardly seems more threatening than Yosemite Sam in the classic Looney Tunes cartoons. This is class warfare at its most literal, as the Duke and his doddering wife (Georgie Glen) spout some nonsense about maintaining “the integrity of the species.” They aren’t frightening, but like the white family in “Get Out,” the situation is stacked in their favor: Both are armed, whereas the kids have only a “well-sharp fork” at their disposal.
“Get Duked!” doesn’t seem the slightest bit ashamed to be silly, and Doff does a terrific job juggling the film’s unique mix of broad humor and horror-movie cues. He clearly understands comic timing, which applies both to the game cast’s consistently amusing antics (a few hopelessly dopey jokes that still score a laugh as delivered) and recurring gags that have no business being as funny as they are the first time, much less upon repetition (like the bit about the “bread thief” who’s been confounding the local authorities). Doff’s especially clever at playing with different parts of the frame, repeatedly planting distractions in the foreground in order to deliver some kind of hilarious surprise behind the characters’ backs.
From a comedic perspective, it helps that all his characters are so oblivious. They’re not idiots per se, although in pure Darwinist terms, one suspects that half of them would fail this particular adventure even if there weren’t a homicidal killer on the prowl. That kind of all-around ineptitude puts the “Get Duked!” ensemble in the company of such classic Zucker and Abrahams movies as “Airplane” and “The Naked Gun,” and should appeal to lovers of old-fashioned lowbrow farce, provided they’re willing to accept a few lame hip-hop references. Speaking of which, don’t let this film’s groan-inducing title (either of them) deter you. Rest assured, they’re the least amusing thing about this otherwise rewarding gambol.