The secret to why directors Rob Wilson and Jason Lapeyre's kiddie combat movie "I Declare War"--that's to say, an action movie with kids--works so well is because it takes the woodland conflict between two groups of kids deadly seriously while letting us get a peek inside of their overactive imaginations. This small group of 13-year-olds regularly meet out in the woods for war games, consistently won by junior strategist PK (Gage Munroe), and this time they've taken on a vicious twist as bully and sociopath Skinner (Michael Friend) ups the stakes and holds PK's best friend Kwon (Siam Yu) as a prisoner.
What follows is a visceral and clever battle of wits, the fracturing of friendships, and a look at the true cost of (make believe) war really is.
Here are the rules of war, handily laid out in the film's title sequence: the goal is to find and capture the enemy flag at their base; once a base is chosen, it can't be moved; if you're "hit" by imaginary bullets from the cobbled together stick guns and rifles, you're out for a ten-count unless you're hit by a grenade: a balloon filled with red dye which takes you out of the game entirely for the day.
It all starts to go sidewise when Skinner beats up PK's soldiers Frost and Kwon, taking the latter prisoner. When his general, Quinn objects, Skinner stages a coup, putting into motion an all-or-nothing contest against PK for reasons that have nothing to do with toy guns. The husky maniac has a major grudge against PK that has to do with Kwon who has no idea why Skinner is so out to get him, and worse, why Skinner's willing to torture him to win the game.
PK, meanwhile, has to deal with Joker, another kid with violence on his mind who, when he's not imagining a heavy-powered assault rifle in his hands, is thinking of blowing some of his fellow players to bits using eye lasers. Then there's Wesley, the new recruit and the team's priest, who might just be too gentle for the dangerous game going on around.
On Skinner's side there's the pair of bickering pals, Frost and Scott, whose friendship might not survive the inclusion of a girl in the game. That would be Jess (Mackenzie Munro), who seems to be playing her own game for keeps with her own allegiances, and she's not above using those early feminine wiles to confuse those boys around her who are more scared and confounded by girls than any military strategy.
"I Declare War" vividly captures this point in time as a kid where everything was important, even the imaginary things. But instead of dipping into nostalgia, the film isn't afraid to say some unpleasant things about kids and who they turn into when at play. It's all about who's picked, who's left out, who gets to do what, and fairness, all traps that might mark a kid, leave them ostracized, or make them a hero. And with Skinner front and center, getting angrier and more sadistic with every setback, there's the constant threat that the danger will get more real than real when everything is said and done.
In the end, though, it's really a story about who PK is and what he's capable of. A general, he's great, but as a friend, well...