Since 2010, Drafthouse Films (the distribution wing of Tim League’s Austin theater empire) has made a point of distributing films with fascinating capsules. The log lines for films on the Drafthouse roster make them seem conceptually cool as hell, from Four Lions (“jihadi slapstick”) to Pietà (“Christianity and Korean brutalism collide”) to The Act of Killing (“role playing for the death squads”). In those examples, seemingly simple ideas yielded excellent films, but occasionally these capsules they fail to impress as much as their pitch would have you expect. Drafthouse’s latest release, I Declare War, fits this theme: the images of real weapons and warlike themes are laid over a children’s game of capture the flag. As occasionally happens with neat ideas, however, I Declare War doesn’t coalesce into anything more than its premise.
The film sets up the rules of its world early on: one moment a boy is charging into a field holding a fake toy gun, the next it’s been transformed into a real kalashnikov. The boy, Kwon (Siam Yu), is ambushed by (real) gunfire and falls to the ground. There, unwounded, he begins counting; after ten seconds he stands. His attacker is shot, falls to the ground, and is killed with a grenade (a water balloon). The title animations lay out the rules of death and the rules of the game, with home bases and generals instructions to go home once you’re killed. There’s no casus belli or anything — this is just how these middle schoolers pass their Sunday. Writer/directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson treat the kids as kids, but have them inhabit a series of war movie tropes: there’s a coup, nicknames like Joker and Priest, heavy tactical discussions that end in one kid asking another what his plans are for after the war (mostly video games). The leader of what emerges as the good army, PK (Gage Munroe, retainer and all), refers constantly to his knowledge of military history and watches Patton every night.
Lapeyre and Wilson do a capable job of making the world of the film comprehensible. It’s the imagination of the kids that transmutes their wooden slingshots and plastic pistols into crossbows and desert eagles. This is the film’s central conceit: that this war becomes real only through make believe, and so the filmmakers make the war as real as it must seem to the children. There’s something disarming at first about seeing the adolescent belligerents carrying no-bullshit shotguns and pistols, but before long the filmic reality of I Declare War becomes more or less predictable. Lapeyre and Wilson aren’t interested in commenting on gun violence or desensitization, but neither are they able to lift the film beyond its imaginative focus. Before long, the film’s most alluring element starts to seem more like a restriction or a distraction.
The war in I Declare War ultimately only serves as scaffolding for the potentially more interesting threads playing out among the kids. Skinner (Michael Friend), the boy who takes over his team in a coup, kidnaps Kwon in the hopes it will lure PK to his base. Skinner is the only character whose warlike tendencies make him seem like he might actually do things like set fire to neighborhood pets and otherwise display early warning signs. Skinner’s basic evil would be more gripping if his justification (PK won’t play with him anymore) were fleshed out before the film’s closing minutes, but as it is he only seems like a villain because the film happens to need one. One other subplot deals with the first appearance of a girl in the wargames, and how the boys grapple with this confusing new element as both soldiers and semi-pubescents. This strand, like much of the film, is undone by the filmmakers’ loyalty to the truth of being a kid; these little jerks are inarticulate, repetitive, obnoxious, and in general behave like insecure assholes to one another. They swear like they just learned about it, and one kid rattles on about boners and coprophagia so much I worried some babysitter had made him sit through Salò. Jess (Mackenzie Munro) gets it worse than the others, though the fact that she’s also a perfect military mind both alienates her from and ingratiates her to her team. Lapeyre and Wilson have a simple, clever idea at the root of their film, one that would have made for a great short. But I Declare War disappoints because that idea alone is not enough to sustain a feature film. The characters remain subject always to the primary conceit, and war remains mundane regardless of who’s fighting.