Who knew radical fundamentalist terrorism could be so hilarious? Chris Morris, the twisted and brilliant mind behind 2010’s Four Lions, came to that exact realization himself and put his ideas to celluloid with a tale of utterly incompetent homegrown Jihadists conspiring to carry out an attack in London. If at a glance the film’s premise reads in poor taste then likely Four Lions isn’t for you, and in fact comedy in general might not really be your wheelhouse; for those fond of laughter, this is a harsh but immensely funny movie, cut from a cloth of biting and unapologetic satire aimed at both the blind zealotry represented in Morris’ cast of principles and the ineptitude of government agencies who purportedly strive to deflect and quash the efforts of terror groups.
Four Lions primarily concerns itself with the eponymous quartet, comprised of Omar (Riz Ahmed, whom some of you may remember appearing in Neil Marshall’s Centurion), the group’s long-suffering leader; Waj (Kayvan Novak), an utter dimwit who’s downright lovable with the donation a blind eye; Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), naive and hopelessly ineffectual; and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white convert to Islam and probably the only truly dangerous member of the group due to an impressive natural immunity to logic and reason. (Which is saying something given that we’re talking about religious extremists.) They eventually recruit a fifth through Barry’s efforts (Arsher Ali), and together they bumble toward their ultimate and thoroughly nebulous goal of blowing up…well, something.
If anything characterizes this film on a totally basic, internal level, it’s anger. Morris, clearly, is outraged, through it’s hard to say whether he’s more contemptuous of his protagonists or the authorities allegedly out to stop them. In truth he seems far more fond of his lions in spite of himself; smartly, the picture invests itself in the characters and we come to like them even if we don’t empathize with them, or perhaps sympathize with them (or none of these, at least in Barry’s case). Neither the audience nor Morris want to see them succeed but then again, it’s hard to take them or their quest very seriously. The chances that they will succeed do seem remote.
So while Morris isn’t rooting for the terrorists, and doesn’t want us to, either, he’s not outright vilifying them even as he takes every opportunity to make them look like complete schmucks. Four Lions seems to be saying that the Jihadis are worthy of our mocking laughter and deserve to be derided, mercilessly, for their shallow ignorance and senseless draconian notions, but the film reserves the worst of its disdain for a police force incapable of identifying the true terrorists from law-abiding citizens– which, perhaps, partially validates some of the rancor that Omar and his friends feel toward Western culture. In one scene, Barry unintentionally makes a good point by claiming that whenever people look at him or other practicing Muslims, they only see suicide bombers; while he’s not really posing this argument in good faith (since he’s baselessly and aggressively trying to paint his opposition as a collection of vile racists), there comes a time in the film where he’s proven right, and another time after that. If Four Lions isn’t pro-terrorism (which it’s not), then it most certainly is highly critical of British government and counter-terrorism.
But more importantly, it’s unbelievably funny, often in that dry, “was that a punch line?” British fashion. Anyone who experiences difficulty with that manner of humour might on first instinct consider spending an hour and a half with a different comedy, but Four Lions should be pleasing to the comic palettes of a really wide audience. There’s nothing particularly nuanced about a man trying to train crows to fly bombs into targets, after all, nor does the film’s finale– in which the lions dress in costumes ranging from the Honey Monster to Raphael— really aim for subtlety. Morris goes big and bold with a lot of his jokes and takes pains to organically generate , but a lot of the legwork really falls on his cast, who are all more than capable of both making these characters human enough for us to be anchored in their story, and also pulling off the absurd comedy of the film’s script.
As funny as Morris’ film is, and as excellent as the actors are (particularly Lindsay, whose Barry very frequently steals the spotlight in all of his stubborn, hateful glory), what threatens to make Four Lions a future classic lies in how far its willing to take its plot and explore its themes. It’s a funny movie, no doubt, but it’s also one that rides on a lot of emotion and bears a grim determination to see its ideas through to the end– which is as much as can be said without tipping the film’s hand too much, though I’m willing to note that Four Lions goes to some dark places indeed. Ludicrously over-the-top and soberingly real at the same time, Morris’ political and sociological frustrations combine to make a comedic cocktail that’s as well-rounded and thought-provoking as it is riotously comical, and one of the best pieces of satire to grace cinemas in the last few years.