I Declare War, a recent independent film from Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson, is definitely a movie that deserves wider attention, especially from gamers. In many ways this movie is a love letter to gamers everywhere who grew up playing "War" or "Soldier" with their buddies after school.
In fact, that is precisely what this movie is about: a fierce game of make believe War between two very competitive kids: P. K Sullivan, the undefeated master of the game (expertly played by Gage Munroe), and Quinn Wilson (an uneven performance by Aidan Gouveia), P.K.'s most capable opponent yet. Well, Quinn would have been P.K.'s most feared opponent if not for a coup de etat that removes him from power. This coup, led by the emotionally unstable Jamie Skinner (a fantastic performance by Michael Friend), doesn't just displace Quinn as the OpFor leader, but also changes this particular session of War from mere innocent competition to something much darker and emotionally charged.
Truth be told, from the first few minutes of the film you can tell that this isn't going to be a lighthearted story about kids playing at war. Why? Well, while the kids are actually just using sticks and water balloons as weapons - classic! - in their minds they are carrying automatic weapons, grenades and rocket launchers, and that is precisely what the audience gets to see. Let me tell you: there is definitely something disturbing about watching young kids carry and use actual weaponry (and big boy words, too!) even if we are well aware it is just imaginary - perhaps this is a bit of effective subtext about the morality of turning war into a game?
If you stuck to the end of that clip you saw the cleverly animated "Rules of War". Pay attention: they will be a governing factor throughout the movie because they serve as a sacrosanct bible for these committed gorgnards.
As shocking as it might be to watch kids shoot at each other with real weaponry, the real shock comes from the brutality that develops during the course of the game. Sure, it might not be as bad as, say, Lord of the Flies, but it gets pretty intense. For example, shortly into the movie P. K.'s best friend Paul (convincingly played by Siam Yu) gets taken prisoner by the other team. For reasons that are teased but don't become truly clear until the end of the movie, the unhinged Skinner takes a special interest in Paul. After roughing him up a bit, Skinner ties him to a tree and begins an old school "pressing" by placing rocks upon a wooden board to slowly compress Paul's chest, all the while ranting about the wrongs he suffered at the hands of P.K. and Paul...even though Paul never met him before. It is a harrowing and very effective sequence, one that shows just how unhinged Skinner is, and how this wargame is being taken a bit too seriously by all involved.
While P.K. and Skinner are the generals in the spotlight, I enjoyed how the movie also gave the rank and file grunts their own due time as well. For example, we are soon introduced to the femme fatale of this war, Jessica Dobrzanski (convincingly played by Mackenzie Munro). Initially she comes across as a curious girl who just wants to hang around with the boys, but it soon becomes quite clear that she is just as much of a deadly tactician as P.K., but her goal extends beyond winning what she considers to be a silly game. Watching Dobrzanski set about achieving her master plan is fascinating, especially when it becomes clear that she is losing herself to an alternate reality just as much as Skinner has lost himself to his own tortured fantasy.
Then we have the Willie and Joe of this War, Trevor Sikorski and Roy Frost, played with great comedic effect by Dyson Fyke and Alex Cardillo. Best friends back in the world, initially Sikorski is the kid who calls the shots while Frost is happy to be his goofy sidekick. But we all know that war changes things and, sure enough, soon after Dobrzanski enters the picture, the happy-go-lucky Frost soon shows that he has fangs too, leading to Sikorski getting the surprise of his young life.
Then there is Joker...what to say about Joker (a solid performance by Spencer Howes). You know that kid that always hung around, asking the most obscene and bizarre questions imaginable? That's Joker. And just like in real life, I found him more annoying than useful, but he did add character to this story, especially when he takes Wesley Bishop, a.k.a. "Priest", as his sidekick (subtly played by Andy Reid). Priest is an altar boy in the real world who only signed up for the War because he wanted to make some new friends. He is this War's conscientious objector, largely sitting on the sidelines as a passive observer..and as Joker's better half, so to speak.
Lastly, we have "the weapon" Caleb (played by Kolton Stewart). He and his dog are silent watchers, working for P.K., but also somewhat set apart from the actual combatants by their lone wolf approach to the battle. Initially Caleb is just a distant shadow, but as this War grinds on, his presence becomes key to the fortunes of both sides.
This amusing and not uninteresting cast of characters helps to keep the movie moving along its 94 minute run time, leading to the inevitable face to face confrontation between P.K. and Skinner where the victor of this War will be determined. Like the rest of this movie, what results is both amusing as well as disturbing. After watching the two teams tear away at each other for so long it is cathartic to see the two generals finally meet face to face, but that catharsis soon gives way to shock as the reason for Skinner's seething hatred of P. K.is finally revealed. All in all, the final act of this movie remains true to the driving theme of the entire flick: the turbulent nature of adolescence and, in particular, the turbulent nature of adolescent friendships. In retrospect, the final scene of Caleb playing with his dog is a fitting response to the film's denouement.
So What's Not to Like?
I think my biggest complaint concerned some of the characterizations. For example, take the character of Priest. While every war needs its conscientious objector, Priest was only that in the vaguest sense. Really, he was more of a tag-along who, with the one exception of his telling Dobrzanski why he believes in the power of prayer, which occurs near the very end of the film, he doesn't contribute much of anything to the thrust of the story. In fact, he completely disappears from the final act! Ultimately I think Lapeyre and Wilson wasted this character. Joker was another character who I think could have used a little more work. As his name suggested, he was strictly about crude jokes and little else.
I also would have liked a slightly bigger cast. Truth be told, the small cast of I Declare War did a phenomenal job of bearing the weight of this war movie on their shoulders, but I think a few more grunts could have expanded the story even more.
Lastly, while this movie was all about showing how kids can be as brutal as the most adult of soldiers, I didn't care for all the obscenities being used by them. Not so much for moral reasons - although I do question how a parent could be comfortable watching their kids mouth such stuff on screen - but because I think this will serve to limit a movie that I think kids would enjoy as much as adults. But for the obscenities, I suspect this movie probably would have quickly been a favorite of the after school grog crowd. What a waste, especially seeing how it might have boosted the gross profits for this small budget, limited release indie flick.
I have to say that this movie surprised me. When I first saw the trailer I loved the idea, but suspected the execution was going to be botched seeing how tough it is to make a serious movie about war when it involves kids as the principle actors. I am happy to say that Lapeyre and Wilson have managed to avoid that deadly minefield and turned out a solid tale of boys at "war". By no means a perfect film, it is nonetheless a riveting story that anybody who grew up playing "War" with their friends can relate to quite well. And, needless to say, it will also resonate with gamers who continue to do so with as much passion and commitment.