What if the Muppet Babies starred in Oliver Stone’s Platoon? Essentially, that’s the central question posed by Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson’s I Declare War … and the answer really bothered me. It took me out of the film almost instantly, like a smack to the face will wake you out of a temporary fog. And it kept me out of the movie, even as I fought to understand what point the co-directors were trying to make.
War exists entirely in an imaginary game being waged between two groups of pre-teens who take combat-driven competition too seriously. They’re essentially playing capture the flag, though this version has been upgraded for the Call of Duty generation. If you are hit by a “bullet,” you stay down until you can count to “10 steamboats.” If a grenade takes you out, you are done for the day. Lay down your weapons and go home.
Lapeyre and Wilson’s find their hook by paying homage to vintage war movies, channeling numerous battlefield clichés through this rudimentary kid’s game. One “squadron” of heavily armed school-aged soldiers is guided by PK (Gage Munroe), a clever strategist who invites kids over to his house to watch Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton. “This is war, man. Not fucking hopscotch,” PK barks at a kid who questions his orders. He has no idea how serious things are about to become.
Across the forest (where the entirety of War is set), there’s trouble in the camp of PK’s rival army. Dissent in the ranks leads to a coup, where the sociopathic Skinner (Michael Friend) has eliminated his superior, Quinn (Aidan Gouveia), and taken a hostage in PK’s best friend, Kwon (Siam Yu).
The directors have a strong hold on recognizable war-movie crutches. These foul-mouthed tykes talk like grizzled combat veterans. They have conversations we’ve heard lonely, homesick foot soldiers sharing on the front lines in war pictures from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. The performances are amateurish, though it’s the price one pays for employing kid actors. And only occasionally does Lapeyre’s script allow its “soldiers” to break character, as when Jess (Mackenzie Munro), the pretty – and only – girl in the game whispers to a compatriot that she’s going to go home to get some juice.
But as Declare knowingly blurs the line between imaginary game and harsh reality, the film’s intent made this disturbingly less fun. Skinner’s psychologically messed up by the high-stakes of this game. And in a series of complicated sequences, the captured Kwon is physically tortured when Skinner places a heavy board on his chest. All’s fair in love and war, right?
The darker War grew – and this movie has a mean streak – the less I cared for it. Lapeyre and Wilson open the film with the sounds of helicopters and automatic weapons being discharged. It simulates the effect of combat -- Stand By Me meets Apocalypse Now -- but the physical sight of camouflaged kids firing M16s and tossing grenades unnerved me to the point that I stopped enjoying this film. Part of that’s on me. I’m a father with two boys. My viewpoint has changed. And War does, at select moments, remind us that these weapons exist only in the kids’ imaginations. But kids this age shouldn’t see a tree branch mounted on a pile of rocks and wish that it was a massive, body-shredding hand-cannon boosted from an old-school Rambo movie.