The premise of Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson’s I Declare War (2012) is great: it’s a children’s game of capture the flag, but played out with real weapons. There will, presumably, be a lot of nostalgic goodwill towards this premise – this is the classic game of capture the flag many will have dreamt of. Our merry band of pint-sized soldiers includes rules-obsessed General P.K. (Gage Munroe), loyal lieutenant Kwon (Siam Yu), and their opposite numbers Quinn (Aidan Gouveia), his insubordinate deputy Skinner (Michael Friend) and budding love interest Jess (Mackenzie Munro). It’s a large cast of similar-looking kids, and the ensemble has a Thin Red Line feel of ambiguity and unfamiliarity.
If Terence Malick did games of capture the flag, this is how he’d do it. It’s a shame, therefore, that the script and acting are quite so dismal. With young actors there often comes a certain degree of lowered expectations, but the line delivery of I Declare War’s gawky grunts is laboured by incredibly clunky, faux-youthful writing. Lines such as “France? I just love France,” and “I just love smoking, don’t you?” (apparently they “just love” everything) thud off the screen. When the film’s writer (co-director Lapeyre) was putting these words down on paper, he probably felt that these were funny evocations of childhood dialogue. Transplanted into the mouths of pre-drama school children, almost every line feels forced and unfunny, dampening what is otherwise an occasionally interesting study of group dynamics.
Whereas Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone (1976) derived its comedy (and, indeed, its performances) from children doing adult-things whilst pretending to be adults, I Declare War has children doing adult things whilst remaining children. The result is that the poor acting looks like poor acting, rather than as though it was part of the intended artifice of the piece. There’s also an uncomfortable strain of ultra-violence, racism and taboo subjects like bestiality and coprophagia (look it up if you dare) that raise the question of who the film is targeted at: slightly perverse children? Really perverse adults? Unfortunately, despite its good central idea, Lapeyre and Wilson’s execution is disappointingly poor.