In the world of genre films, often times filmmakers do not need to stretch their imagination to incite controversy. Whether by employing visceral tastelessness, such as in the August Underground series, or touching upon hot button subject matter, such as in Elephant, inciting anger or disapproval from an audience is a fundamentally simple practice, often urged on by the wealth of free publicity that can come from discussions of said controversy in the media or amongst cinephiles. And whereas in the horror genre, modern entries have been chastised for ramping up explicit content and graphic depictions of violence, but other genres have garnered controversy from the stark imagery portrayed in a tamer fashion, such as in I Declare War, on VOD now from Drafthouse Films.
Drafthouse, who previously released the pitch black and controversial comedy Four Lions, proudly stands behind this coming-of-age comedy and war film satire, which has caused a stir since its film festival rounds late last year. However, what helps this film transcend from independent comedy to genre film worthy of Diabolique’s focus is the perspective which it utilizes, as a childish game of “Capture The Flag” is told through the imagination of the children participating, in which sticks and stones transform into high powered assault rifles and grenades at a moments notice. The audience is always reminded that there is no actual physical threat, despite a singular child who goes a little extreme with his prisoner interrogation, but the sheer image of children engaged in intense shootouts, imaginative or not, can always inspire walkouts and dismissals. Those who can see through that knee-jerk response, however, will be treated to one of the most genuine, fun and imaginative genre comedies in recent memory.
I Declare War is a hilarious mix of Stand by Me and Platoon, providing a nostalgic experience for those who long for the days of forested play but with a realistic understanding of how kids act and feel. The children in this movie are crude, selfish, misunderstood and unique, but they’re all the more realistic for it, and those aspects even lend themselves to the war film satire at hand, reflecting the often uncouth dialogue featured in many war films themselves. At the same time, the film is incredibly imaginative, and stakes become raised not through the hyperreal moments of violent combat but rather through emotional investment in the game itself. And as lines begin to blur as certain characters’ desperation to win the game grows exponentially, the feeling of mischievous playfulness never departs from the screen, and the movie plays all the better for it.
Technically speaking, I Declare War is very impressive, with surprisingly incredible effects adding considerably to the battle scenes and adds the necessary tension to make a silly make-believe game of war feel like a scene from Black Hawk Down. The cinematography from Ray Dumas is exactly how digital cinematography should look, with gorgeous, handheld composition of the glossy kind giving the film a slightly saturated color palette. Furthermore, the original score from Eric Cadesky and Nick Dyer is absolutely appropriate to the films tone and lends to the comedy of the scenes as the orchestral works are more appropriate for a large-scale and super-serious war movie. But it’s the co-direction team of Robert Wilson and Jason Lapeyre (who also serves as the film’s sole credited writer) who steer I Declare War into unforgettable territory, spicing up monologues about survival and revenge with hilarious childlike asides and allowing each character, no matter how marginal, to be clearly defined and important to the narrative. It’s the kind of storytelling that Hollywood movies featuring children sorely have been lacking in the past two decades and results in an incredibly bold work of independent cinema from these two gentlemen.
Another reason why I Declare War is set apart from other child-oriented films is the strong performances from its young cast, each of whom are wrapped up in the competition and their imagination adds an element of naturalism to the surreal experience that unfolds. Siam Yu, Gage Munroe, Michael Friend and Mackenzie Munro are the films anchor, as they implement a grander mystery behind the intentions of each during a seemingly innocuous game. At the same time, they’re so good in their roles that the game still seems prescient in their decision, and their cognizance of this childlike play makes their desperation all the more endearing and hilarious. Similarly, every cast member has moments to shine, whether it be faux-acts of bravery during the epically choreographed action sequences or Shakespearean moments of betrayal and intrigue.
However, when the cards are on the table, I Declare War is a fun, innovative and simply great film, providing consistent and hefty doses of humor, dark and otherwise. The images of children shooting rocket launchers and handguns at one another are stark and jaw-dropping, admittedly, but for those who can leave their preconceptions at the door, one should realize that the film is not advocating violence but rather advocating imagination in its most rawest, primal form. I Declare War had me grinning from ear to ear for its lean, mean runtime and I doubt I’ll see many films as original and genuine as I Declare War anytime soon.
– By Ken W. Hanley