Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the first of many reviews from ActionFest. What is ActionFest? Well, it’s a place where I saw a man in a tuxedo jet pack across a busy street and land on the red carpet for the opening night film, an old west style gunfight in the parking lot of a movie theater and Gina Carano set a dude on fire. Oh, and I got talk about Sam Peckinpah with legendary stuntman Mickey Gilbert, who worked on The Wild Bunch and happened to be the brave soul who doubled Redford and took the leap off the cliff in Butch and Sundance. And that’s not counting any of the actual films I watched.
ActionFest takes place in Asheville, North Carolina, a burg that mixes small town and a booming art community in very much the same kind of way as Austin or Portland. It was my first time here and I had a blast, especially since the programming is 100% geared towards action flicks.
I was asked to be on the jury alongside a really good group of cinephiles, including Fantasia’s Mitch Davis, The Hollywood Reporter’s Borys Kitt, The Weinstein Company’s Dan Guando, owner of Asheville’s favorite indie video store Orbit DVD Marc McCloud and local radio DJ Sadie and after some sadly bloodless and calm deliberation we settled upon I DECLARE WAR as the best picture winner of ActionFest 2012.
I Declare War is Platoon via Bugsy Malone, a film about the horrors of war as told through a children’s imagination as they play-kill each other. The median age of the cast has to be about 12, with the oldest person in the movie maybe 16 and even he’s a bit player. All the main characters are around 10-12 years old.
When the movie begins we see kids stalking through tall grass with gun-shaped sticks, carefully hunting each other as kids do when playing war or Cowboys and Indians. But in a flash we are no longer passive observers in this serious game, but instead see through the eyes of the kids. Their sticks are now real guns and the game has a gravity of seriousness that it might not appear to for the casual, adult observer.
The rules are set up immediately. Being shot doesn’t remove you from the game, it just freezes you for a slow count of 10. In order to be removed you have to be nailed by a grenade, which is a water balloon filled with red paint. Not everybody has these grenades, so there’s a strategy at play. It doesn’t matter if you get the drop on someone if your grenade carrier isn’t near enough to send the enemy out of the game.
Writer/director Jason Lapeyre quickly sets up these rules and introduces us to the players. On one side you have PK (Gage Munroe), a strategist and undefeated General in the game of War. On the other side you have his first real competition in Quinn (Aidan Gouveia), a thinker more than a fighter. But Quinn’s team is disorganized, some of his subordinates a bit power hungry and maybe even mentally unstable.
PK is excited by his first real challenge and though he’s won war 6 other times this is his first battle that he would count as a triumph if he came out ahead.
Like any good war movie each side has recognizable archetypes. There are the crazy guys, like Joker (Spencer Howes) who imagines blowing up people with a laser blast Cyclops style from his eyes and Skinner (Michael Friend) who has it in for PK and gradually turns into the Col. Kurtz of the movie. There’s the female player (Mackenzie Munro) who uses her allure to make the dimmer members of her team do her bidding. There’s the silent, mysterious tracker (Kolton Stewart) a la Billy in Predator. There’s the loyal soldier (Siam Yu) and even the “preacher” with a non-violent streak character… except here he’s an alter boy (Andy Reid) that doesn’t really want to play, but desperately wants to make friends, so he enlists.
Now all these familiar archetypes are in play, but this isn’t really a spoof movie. You can recognize these tropes, but Lapeyre makes them broad enough so that they don’t really reflect anyone specific. The closest they come is making that Skinner kid Col. Kurtz… he doesn’t shave his head, but damn if he doesn’t dip into Kurtz territory by the end.
It’s a really fun concept that could get old really quickly, but oddly it doesn’t. I think Lapeyre cast the film well and gave these kids enough to do that the drama within the warring factions keeps this from feeling like a good short film stretched to feature length. The cast also talk like kids talk, not how adults think kids talk, meaning a ton of F-bombs. I’m sure that is going to combine with kids wielding realistic looking weapons and make it a bit on the difficult side for them to find US distribution.
But that’s what makes this thing work. There’s a realism to it that grounds the more fantastical stroke of seeing the imaginary weapons of these kids. It’s a film about kids that is more for adults in much the same way Stand By Me was. In fact, I’m pretty sure the filmmakers clothed Siam Yu to look like Wil Wheaton in Stand By Me. He’s got the exact same kind of shirt and jeans as Gordie and I’d like to think that wasn’t a coincidence.
I think a brave distributor could really take this flick and run with it. It’s a charming movie, an engaging movie and a unique film. I see a lot of films and so many of them feel like they’re made by committee, homogenized to the point of losing all flavor. Like it or hate it, I Declare War has its own voice and is confident enough in their tone and story to wring it for all it’s worth.
I Declare War beat out kung fu films, hardcore action films and post-apocalyptic films precisely for the execution of this unique voice and I hope that whatever distributor they find realizes this and supports it.
So, there you have it. Surprisingly real emotional and physical stakes in a film about kids pretending to kill each other… will wonders never cease?
Got some more ActionFest reviews hitting soon, so keep your eyes peeled!