The most revealing film ever made about kids and the appeal of violent fantasy isn't Battle Royale or an adaptation of Lord of the Flies. It's the shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark that a couple of Mississippi buddies put together over the course of their adolescence. Every punch thrown by this wee Indiana Jones is scored with the fully Foleyed crack of the original film. Between shots, the hero and the villains age from junior high to high school and back. It's as if the pretend ass-kicking they've devoted themselves to is the very agent of their maturation into American men — which would be only a slight exaggeration of the way millions of MMA- and blockbuster-minded boys today get shaped into grownups.
I Declare War is almost as true. Its heroes are kids; its villains are kids; its fantasies are kids'. But its truths are adult. Concerned with nothing more than one afternoon's capture-the-flag-type game of forts and toy guns, and nothing less than the way armed conflicts so often become self-perpetuating gameplay ruled by the most childish of feelings, the movie, directed by Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson, features 90 minutes of kids plotting to kill kids. It's play-violence, of course. The warriors here pop their pretend artillery off at each other, but we see what they feel: movie-style muzzle fire, explosions from paint-balloon grenades, a crossbow bolt thunking into a tree when the shooter actually only aimed a slingshot.
One team is led by cocksure preteen PK Sullivan (Gage Munroe, a born screen presence), a sort of neighborhood Napoleon who has Patton slumber parties. To capture his enemies' flag, Sullivan plots feints and ambushes; on the other team, Sullivan's rival, Skinner (Michael Friend), schemes against his own troops and bets the game on the taking of a prisoner, schweeny Kwon (Siam Yu), who is to Sullivan what Milhouse is to Bart Simpson — a best friend and a liability. Skinner's plan: to force Sullivan into a foolhardy assault to free Kwon.
The movie illustrates like few others the peculiar intensity of kids' adventure fantasies. Not housebroken entertainments like Harry Potter or The Goonies, the ones sold to kids with parental approval, but the foul-mouthed and curiously cruel fantasies of actual, unsupervised kids with too much unstructured time. There are some laughs here, especially when the soldiers briefly break character and admit to less bloodthirsty concerns — "Want to come to my house after war?" But mostly the kids and the film play this as serious as any men-with-guns thriller, with death (administered by the squib-like paint balloons) permanent and shocking.
One execution, involving a splatter-grenade to the head, plays out just as it would in a vintage Schwarzenegger shoot-'em-up: We watch the grim face of the killer but are spared a shot of the gory victim. Skinner, a troubled kid pickling in his unpopularity, sees the captured Kwon as a chance to revenge himself upon his social betters — even if doing so involves real torture with a real pocket knife. We can tell that knife is not a figment of his imagination the way the guns are because he has to WD-40 it to open the blade. The occasional kick to a fallen soldier's gut isn't make-believe, either. As the war grows more intense, the play violence and real bullying become indistinguishable.
All that makes this much more than The Bad News Bears' First Blood. As the film surges to its tense conclusion, that game takes on some real dramatic stakes, because Skinner keeps making the pretend stuff too real, and because the kids all will it into mattering. That's infectious, even though the movie never pretends the flags or the forts stand for anything more than the idea of "winning" itself. War here is a time-killing abstraction, a way to demonstrate to the world that war is a thing you are good at. Sullivan, who has won enemy flags in all previous war games, prides himself deeply on his knowledge of ancient battles; he wants nothing more than to go up against someone else who understands strategy. Lapeyre's script is smart about the boundless self-regard of kind-of-smart kids surrounded by less-gifted ones. Sullivan mistakes his ambitious competence for greatness, and he's blind — until his bleak showdown with Skinner — to just how much of his decency he's willing to sacrifice to win.
Exciting and thoughtful, scraped free of the empty provocations of the wicked-pixie Hit-Girl scenes in Kick-Ass, I Declare War offers movie thrills — smartly plotted betrayals and escapes — as well as its share of disappointments. The firefights grow wearying, some of the bullying verges upon the fantastic, and in at least two scenes the chatter loses its naturalistic flatness. "Ever been buggered?" a kid nicknamed Altar Boy is asked. "No," he says, "it's an Anglican church."
The performances are strong, especially Friend as the sweaty, insecure bad guy, an eruption of dork rage who keeps ruining the war by making it personal. Mackenzie Munro is excellent as a young woman — maturing faster than the boys — who learns she can sweet-talk her way through confrontations with the enemy. She can shoot, too. The smart, funny, terrifying thing: Like all these characters, hers seems to learn something fundamental about how to be a grown-up from pretending to be a killer.