Four Lions

Rubberdinghyrapids, bro

Can you make a comedy about terrorism?  I don’t know.  I’ve heard Chris Morris’ Four Lions described as a “Jihadist satire,” but the implications of that term grind my gears a little bit.  In order to turn something into  satire or comedy (yes, even a black comedy), you need subject matter that can, under the right set of unusual or absurd circumstances, become laugh-out-loud comical.  Suicide bombing is not one of those subjects – and if it is, for you, you may want to take a moment and think about why.

None of this is to suggest Four Lions isn’t a good film.  It is, to a point.  I’m still just not sure what kind of movie it is.  It has some very humorous moments, which stem not from the subject matter but from Morris/Armstrong’s sharp writing.  If there’s one thing that adds charm to a film of this type, it’s the dark British humor (remember our “like Guy Ritchie but…” category?).  The story follows Omar (Riz Ahmed), a radicalized (but married) Muslim man aspiring to become a suicide bomber along with a few friends: Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white convert to Islam, Waj (Kayvan Novak), the “slow” member of the group who will agree with pretty much anything Omar says, and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who likes to use animals for bomb experiments.  Eventually, the group recruit Hassan (Arsher Ali), a Tupac-quoting young Muslim man who fakes a bombing during a panel discussion.  Once he joins, we notice the count is one member high, and we begin to wonder which of the five will suffer a hilarious demise halfway through the film, leaving the “four lions” described in the title.

Surprisingly, there is scant conflict to speak of.  The friends cannot seem to agree on a target for their “plan,” but that’s about it.  Omar and Waj screw up their opportunities at a training camp in Pakistan and return home, but even then, the assertive Omar manages to keep his group under control (despite Barry taking a command position every time Omar is out of the room).  Even Omar’s wife (Preeya Kalidas) and child know what he’s planning, and fully support Omar blowing himself to bits.  This is striking, considering they seem to be a very moderate family, and whether the family’s blind acceptance is part of the joke, we’re left to decide for ourselves.  There are some excellent dialogue scenes early on, featuring witty derision between Omar and Barry (who you’d think would be the most comic character, but he’s established early on as the most ruthless and antagonistic), as well as Matt (Craig Parkinson), Omar’s co-worker/superior at his normal job.  Some of these scenes, specifically one in which Barry teaches the group to swallow their cell phone SIM cards in order to avoid being tracked, sets up the payoff at the end of the movie, some of which is excellent.

For whom are we supposed to root, you ask?  I’m not certain.  Obviously, we don’t want the group’s plan to succeed – it involves blowing up as many innocent bystanders as possible.  But we also don’t want these likable characters (except Barry, maybe) to be killed or apprehended by the government.  Since these are the only two options, the film doesn’t have what can be considered a “happy” ending, which goes against the Shakespearean idea that a happy ending is what makes a story a comedy.  Regardless, after the group decide to detonate themselves at a crowded marathon and begin their journey there, the story has a few nice slopes.  The fates of certain characters are brimming with irony, and while they may not generate laughter, they’ll certainly garner appreciation for the writing.  “Squat jogs, yeah?” the oblivious Matt states after Omar convinces him the group is carrying sports equipment, not explosives, and explains why they’re all running so strangely.

Ultimately, Four Lions is a clever, risky film packed with brilliant moments and good actors, but the tone is never defined.  What is supposed to be funny?  Why is it funny?  Sure, there are areas in our world (Gaza, for instance) where children are raised to believe martyrdom is heroic, but in a film like this, are we supposed to laugh at Omar’s likening of himself to Simba from The Lion King when explaining to his son how he’s going to blow himself up?  Again, why?  The tone darkens in the film’s final third.  Even some of the deaths, I think, are meant to be darkly humorous, but not everyone will laugh.  Some of the wrong people get blown up, which is expected, and the ending seems to ask, “Wasn’t that sad and regrettable?” after presenting us with a group of unfaltering extremists who barely lend a second to doubting what they are doing is right.  I’ll let you decide whether I’m talking about the characters or Morris and his film crew.

Four Lions (2010); written by Chris Morris and Jesse Armstrong; directed by Chris Morris; starring Riz Ahmed, Nigel Lindsay,  Kayvan Novak and Arsher Ali.

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