Judge Bill Gibron remembers when he was a prisoner of backyard war.
This ain't kid's stuff
If you're from a specific generation, you'll remember the game well. Two teams, with chosen sides, preparing to duke it out on the imaginary backyard battlefield. It could be in service of capturing a flag or smearing the…well, let's not go there, or any other fake scenario. Sometimes, toy weapons were used. In other instances, pine cones and clots of dirt were the artillery of choice. In all instances, once you were wounded and declared "dead," your part in this after school D-day was determined. You simply had to wait until the others finished firing off their high powered death rays ("pew…pew") before everyone was resurrected and the war commenced all over again. Fun for a sunny Summer 1969 afternoon, but not much for a movie, right? WRONG. Thanks to directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson, the bland memories of a forgotten era are given new life by the inclusion of one decidedly brilliant creative concept—instead of viewing the melee through the eyes of an adult, we get to see this particular afternoon assault through the imagination of the kids at play…and they have quite the vivid and realistic approach.
In fact, the fun in a film like I Declare War is brushing aside the taboo of kids with guns and their guts hanging out and allowing the mind of a child take over. Throughout this inspired effort, we see the clash they way the participants do—with full metal jackets and assault weapons at the ready, laser beam eyes and grenade launchers eager to take out the enemy. The rules of this game are relatively straightforward and the two warring "generals"—P.K. Sullivan (Gage Munroe) and Quinn Wilson (Aidan Gouveia)—have a personal vendetta between them (the former is unbeaten in these underage games and the latter doesn't approve). Each also has a handy right hand man—Joker (Spencer Howes) and Skinner (Michael Friend) respectively—as well as a group of friends who make the possible casualty count even more appealing. Finally, along the fringes is a dreaded male enemy—a girl named Jessica (Mackenzie Munro)—who tries to play both side against each other for her own unique aims. Naturally, things go from friendly…to fierce…to frightening relatively quickly.
From the moment we see one of our heroes taking aim with an AK-47 or a traditional rifle and rally off a series of shots, we recognize that I Declare War is going to be unusual. Subversive, in fact. Again, this isn't some kids killing kids allegory ala Lord of the Flies. This is just a really novel way of explaining away juvenile aggression and the bizarre ways it can manifest itself. By letting us see things from their perspective, but putting real weapons and real danger into the mix (albeit, from a purely fanciful level), we wind up with a worthy addition to the coming of age genre. In fact, it would be safe to argue that I Declare War is part of the category's clever subgenre—the cautionary coming of age. We realize rather quickly that no one's motives are clear cut, that some element of this experience is meant to keep the horrors of maturity at bay and under control, and that, in the end, leadership is only as good as the goals within said principal. Joker and Skinner are clearly headed to juvie, while their overseers have made this entire enterprise far too personal.
Sadly, the social commentary can't override the increasingly grand gimmick here. Parents need to be forewarned—this is the kind of movie that will definitely give the kiddies the wrong idea. Sure, Lapeyre and Wilson make sure to emphasize the relative safety of the endeavor (notice we used the modifier "relative") but the action movie mechanics on display will definitely drive more than one pre-adolescent to ditch the mud pies and seek out something a bit more "lethal." Fortunately, I Declare War doesn't glorify or romanticize its violence, just the heroic infliction and means of doing same. On the other hand, guardians will get a lot out of this, including the obvious answer to the equal evident question "just what do you think is going on in their heads when they're aiming those Super Soakers at each other?" As a precursor to being a true adult, I Declare War may offer up a simplistic message, but the method of delivery is far from standard.
Neither is the excellent Blu-ray treatment given this title by Image Entertainment and Drafthouse Films. Shot on Red HD cameras, the movie's 2.35:1 transfer is just terrific. The 1080p image does a great job of accentuating the natural setting for this "war" as well as rendering the kids (and the blood) equally authentic. The sound design adds to this, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix doing an excellent job of modulating between the everyday conversations of the pre-teens and the all Hell breaks loose logistics of actual battle. The back speaker spark whenever guns are fired and the explosions resonate around the room. But the best bit here is the extensive added content. We get two commentaries, one featuring the filmmakers and producer Lewin Webb, the other featuring most of the cast with the two directors. Both are fun, with the former being more off the cuff than informative. The kids, on the other hand, cut loose, having a good time in the process. We also get a stunt featurette, as well as a character description documentary. Finally, there's a paintball challenge and a series of trailers.
Given how obvious the idea is, it's stunning that no one came up with an approach like I Declare War's before. While the movie may slip a bit in the inevitable execution, the overall effort is excellent.
Not guilty. One of the year's most unusual and satisfying indies.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Drafthouse Films
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