With humor as black as a raven’s wing at midnight, scathing British humorist Christopher Morris’ debut feature Four Lions comes to town this week. It is the funniest and most vicious film to come along since In the Loop (2009)—and even more daring, since it paints a bleakly comedic picture of terrorism and the people who fight it. The idea is to defang the power of terrorism and fanaticism by portraying its practitioners as delusional boobs who are quite apt to trip over their own feet in their rush to achieve aims they barely understand. I’m not sure it can be said to defang anyone, since delusional boobs can be as dangerous as the most skillful—possibly more so. That, however, doesn’t make the film any less funny, nor does it render the satire any less lethal.
The film—which employs the look of a pseudo documentary that’s even cruder than that of In the Loop—essentially follows a group of low-rent Brit mujahideen in their ill-defined (in their own minds) attempts to strike a blow for Islam by blowing up something. There are, in reality, five of them, but since one of their number manages to blow himself—and a hapless sheep—to smithereens before the main event, they become the titular four. These fellows are terrorists by way of Larry, Moe and Curly—except they may not be that smart.
The leader of the group is Omar (Riz Ahmed), who is the closest thing the outfit has to being the brains of the operation. He’s actually portrayed as rather likable—at least for someone whose goal in life is to explode himself and as many “infidels” as possible in the process. He has a patient, understanding wife (Preeya Kalidas), a doting son and a nonviolent (though equally absurd in his own way) brother. That he’s considerably smarter than the gang of would-be terrorists he heads up manages to garner him a little sympathy, because it’s impossible not to feel a little sorry for what he has to put up with in his efforts to achieve his loathsome goals. This sympathy and twisted normalization of his family life is precisely what makes the film work—and what keeps it more than a little disturbing.
The rest of the group range from the incredibly stupid to the amazingly stupid. Two of them—Waj (Kayvan Novak) and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar)—are in the amazingly stupid category. (Faisal’s big dream is to create crow-suicide bombers, which mostly results in premature detonation and a shower of feathers.) The third, Hassan (Arsher Ali), is a joke-shop terrorist with a penchant for rapping, who gets recruited into the group by perhaps the worst of the lot, Barry (Nigel Lindsay). Barry is a thorough working-class Brit who has somehow converted to Islam. He’s perpetually angry, constantly arguing, constantly contradicting himself—and can’t even understand why blowing up a mosque and taking credit for it might not have the effect of converting non-radicals to their cause.
Then again, it’s never clear that any of them understand what they’re cause is—only that they have one and it gives them some sense of purpose in life. This, I think, is the sobering key to Four Lions. These are people without much sense of purpose and this cause—whether they understand it or not—fills that need in the worst way possible.
What’s surprising about the film—apart from the fact that it’s actually funny and that anyone would dare make it in the first place—is that it’s willing to follow this group all the way to the bitter end, which includes their ridiculous—and extremely dangerous—efforts to blow up the London Marathon. More, it drags the opposing forces into the fray of stupidity, since the police and special agents are not noticeably any brighter than their terrorist counterparts—they argue endlessly over whether or not a sniper shot a terrorist in a bear costume or some hapless innocent dressed up in a Wookie suit.
Four Lions isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste, but for those who aren’t completely put off by the subject matter, it’s that rarest of things: an edgy comedy that actually is edgy, not just crude. Rated R for language throughout, including some sexual references.