Playing ‘war' was, during this writer's childhood at least, a pretty common past time. On any given Sunday afternoon it wasn't in the least bit uncommon to see many of the neighborhood kids, boys and girls alike, running around in the woods between our suburb and the train tracks blasting away at one another with toy guns and imaginary bullets. It's probably a pretty safe assumption that this happened in many neighborhoods around the continent, if not around the world. It was fun. No one got hurt, unless someone tripped and scraped their knee or ran too fast under a low laying branch, and when it was all over and done with whatever sides were taken quickly dissolved in the name of friendship and the general pursuit of childhood happiness. Written by Jason Lapeyre and co-directed by Lapeyre and Robert Wilson, 2012's I Declare War takes that basic and common childhood past time to some interesting and decidedly adult extremes.
The premise is simple enough: a group of twelve year old boys and one lone girl, Jess (Mackenzie Munro), leave the safety of their suburban backyards to a woodlot very much like the one most everyone else played in. Here they pick teams and set out to play a game of capture the flag. As they establish their rules and teams and boundaries and set about their play, fantasy starts to blend with reality. The imaginary guns made from sticks or toys that they pretend to shoot their opponents with start to look like real metal firearms and the water balloons that they filled up explode in bloody pops. As the game gets underway, P.K. (Gage Munroe) and his team do their best to outsmart Skinner (Michael Friend) and his team so that they can free their comrade Kwon (Siam Yu) who is being tortured in Skinner's prison camp.
Of course, the game intensifies and as it does, friendships that were previously rock solid soon show signs of stress until eventually, all in the name of winning, the rules of the game are bent and the lines that separate fantasy and reality begin to fray…
What's interesting about this movie is how it does just that, how it shows the reality we know to be ‘true' blend with the imagined actions that the kids take against one another and the increasingly brutal results of that action. It's a bit shocking in the sense that when we see all of this in its ‘imagined' state we are witnessing some pretty harsh ‘kid on kid' violence as the kids shoot one another throughout the movie and blow each other up with their grenades. The movie makes a strong but not at all inaccurate statement about how seriously kids can and do take competitive play, be it the bloody results of capture the flag as shown here or a fight that might erupt over a heated Wii session (many of us have seen this happen). We see the war that the kids indulge in played out in much the same way we might see it happen in a movie like Platoon in that it's gritty, violent, bloody and laced with profanity and just like in that movie and others we see the effects of what the combatants are put through affect the personalities of those involved.
At the same time, we get this odd child-like take on the true motivations behind all of this. Why is Skinner so intent on keeping Kwon? Because he desperately wants to rekindle the friendship that he lost with Kwan and this is a way that he can communicate that without wimping out about his emotions in front of his friends. So we wind up with interesting contrasts here, we get some pretty realistic violence and the type of language that would accompany that often times as a metaphor for the way in which these kids are trying to resolve some personal issues amongst their group peppered with childlike exaggerations and unrealistic ideas (at one point a kid decides he can shoot laser beams out of his eyes to roast his foes!).
The picture doesn't hold back, making it a film better suited for those older than the kids cast in the film. The commitment that the young actors show here is admirable, everyone stays in character and we have no trouble whatsoever believing that, yeah, these guys are into it in a big way. The themes that work their way into the storyline and the deeper meaning behind some of the words and deeds portrayed, however, are not the stuff of a kid's film. Not to say that younger viewers able to pay attention and pull from what they see here to come away with their own interpretation shouldn't see it but a lot of what Lapeyre and Wilson accomplish with this picture might go over the heads of those who don't necessarily understand why they're seeing what they're seeing. It's a clever film, a very thought provoking picture that is not only well made but quite confrontational. It's a picture that questions why, as both kids and adults, we act the way we do, why we find enjoyment in certain aspects of our culture and why we react to those around us in certain ways. Very much a film worth seeing, I Declare War is an excellent addition to Drafthouse Films' increasingly diverse catalogue, and they've seen fit to roll out the red carpet for it. Which brings us to…
I Declare War is framed at 2.35.1 widescreen and presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Shot digitally the image is clean and obviously there are no issues with grain or print damage to note. Detail is very strong as is color reproduction, the reds really popping nicely against the green and brown foliage and dirt in the forest where much of the action takes place. Black levels are maybe just a little less than perfect but they're strong while skin looks like skin, no weird waxiness. There is some shimmer in a few scenes but texture is good as is contrast and depth. All in all, this is a strong looking picture.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is pretty solid, using the surround channels effectively during the more action oriented scenes to do some interesting things with directional effects. Bass response is typically pretty strong and the levels stay nicely balanced. There are no problems with hiss or distortion and while some of the foley effects sound like foley effects (gun shots sometimes stand out here), as the gunshots in the movie aren't supposed to be ‘real' anyway we can let this slide. Dialogue stays easy to follow and perfectly clear while the atmospheric score has good depth and range to it, complimenting the action and the drama very well.
The first of two commentary tracks on the disc features directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson who are joined by producer Lewin Webb. This track gives us a pretty good idea of where the ideas for the movie came from and what they were trying to accomplish when they set out to make this film. They discuss the locations, some of the effects and the stunts and what it was like working with a large group of young actors on the project. The second track joins Lapeyre and Wilson with a bunch of the young cast members who starred in the picture. This is definitely the more interesting of the two discussions as we get to learn about the making of the picture from the kids' point of view. Interestingly enough, they spend a lot of time talking about what their characters do in the movie and seem to have a pretty solid understanding of what the directors were going for here and why. They add some insight into the whole ‘fantasy vs. reality' angle that plays such a big part in the movie and tell some fun stories about working together on the project. At the same time, there's a nice air of respect here in that the kids all let each other talk, so we wind up with a very active track which thankfully manages to stay coherent, well-structured and interesting throughout the duration of the discussion. A lot of group commentaries and quickly descend into chaos or turn into little more than a series of jokes and ‘hey, look what we're doing here' style talk but this remains interesting throughout and you leave with the impression that this was a very positive experience for the kids that were involved.
Outside of the commentary tracks the disc also includes a making of featurette entitled Building A Battle which is a decent mix of behind the scenes clips and cast and crew interview snippets to provide some context to those clips. It's not as deep as you might it to be but it does give us a chance to see how the adult directors treated the young actors on set. Soldiers And Actors is a segment that includes a few more interviews with a bunch of the kids that appear in front of the camera in the movie. Additionally, we get a trailer for the features, trailers for a bunch of other Drafthouse Films releases, animated menus and chapter selection. Inside the case is an insert booklet and a download code for a digital copy of the feature.
Drafthouse Films have given I Declare War a strong Blu-ray release. The film itself is excellent, it's creative and unique and thought provoking and at the same time it's exciting, fast paced and full of action. The performances are surprisingly good and the technical side of things, while occasionally relaying of its low budget, is slick and impressive. All of this comes to Blu-ray in very nice quality with great audio and video and a score of good extra features as well. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.