REVIEW: Four Lions [2010]

“I can’t even get them to stir their tea without smashing a window”

Is it too soon to mock Jihadist extremists by not only showing them as idiotic adults with frat house sensibilities, but also as scared men talking the talk before realizing their want of life overshadows any dreams of heaven? Well, British writers Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, and Christopher Morris don’t think so. Their film—also directed by Morris—Four Lions, is a look into the activities of four Islamic Brits trying hard to join Allah’s mission of destroying the Jews and the American oppressors. They produce test movies to practice their serious faces, voices, and postures; they cull together materials for explosives as simpleton Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) buys in bulk at the same store, going in multiple times with different voices to disguise himself—even covering his beard with both hands when pretending to be a woman; and try to train in Pakistan with Al-Qaeda. Led by Riz Ahmed’s Omar, the only one with a semblance of intelligence, he and his “Three Stooges” of imbecility satirically show how insane the idea of suicide bombing as a ticket to the afterlife is.

A kindred spirit to last year’s In the Loop and its send-up of America and England’s quest for money and oil in the Middle East, Four Lions brings forth memorable characters and a fantastically humorous script of their mistakes. Nigel Lindsay’s Barry desires to be the best soldier of Islam he can be, coining himself as the ‘invisible Jihadi’, but in fact is a stubborn moron who’s big plan is to blow up a mosque to radicalize the moderates into fighting; Arsher Ali’s Hassan is a young man who finds the idea of being a terrorist as cool, rapping and engaging in political stunts, but completely unready to pull the trigger on his own bomb-strapped body; and Kayvan Novak’s Waj is a wonderful embodiment of low-IQ and a naïve ability to be talked into doing anything, even being told the devil had switched his brain and heart to trick him into listening to the wrong one. The simple plot of four guys and their admittedly fearful friend Fessal, willing to help but not partake in the actual deed, looking to get into heaven and the history books as Muslims who did their duty takes a backseat to the crazy antics of the men themselves.

The gags put forth are too good to be ruined here as the surprise of the experience adds to the humor. Between suicide crows, a costumed marathon raising money for children, a retooled version of The Lion King into Simba’s Jihad, and an avatar-based website called Puffin Party to jokingly be used as an internet-based communication system with Al-Qaeda, you can guess at how far the writers are willing to go to mock this foursome. Every single one is British born and dismissed as a regular guy on the street; no one would believe they’d have the mental fortitude to organize and cause damage. Omar and Waj even get thrown out of Pakistan for their stupidity, so if anything is going to happen, they’ll have to figure it out themselves. Luckily Omar has no shame and will brainwash them all into staying on track with him, lying about a personal relationship with the Emir to find a target and take it out. He has lived his entire life to complete his jihad, his wife and son are comically supportive of his mission, and he puts on a show so convincing that he tricks himself into thinking it’s what he wants.

Nothing is sacred. While the Islamic Brits are portrayed as incompetent screw-ups, the English populace isn’t shown much better when Craig Parkinson’s Matt, a co-worker of Omar, buys any line fed to him and Julia Davis’s Alice, a neighbor, is on drugs or something to make her vacant stares oblivious to the metal bolts and bottles of peroxide littering their apartment. Even Benedict Cumberbatch’s hostage negotiator is shown trying to talk a bomber down by conversing about sex while the police arrest a study group in traditional Muslim garb instead of the actual contemporary terrorists. But that is what makes the film funny in its absurd look at terrorism. The world portrayed is farcical; to think any of this could happen is a sign that you don’t have a sense of humor—Morris and the other filmmakers make a man blowing up after tripping over sheep hysterical in the context of what had been happening. The simple fact four men ready to explode amidst a crowd of non-believers would run so fearfully of death carrying explosive materials shows the joke of it all. And having Omar’s son excitedly wonder if Simba will bomb Scar and his herd in the bedtime story just shows our viewpoint of Islamic education to its extreme.

Four Lions has flaws, for sure, but the comedy more than makes up for its lack of sophistication. Scenes may seem as though merely a string of sketches attached together to coherently enhance a plot, but their success rate at creating laughs proves the process’s worth. Once you begin to add reality into such a film, you risk alienating its audience by becoming too silly for the serious subject or too weighty for the romp. You can’t go into the film with baggage or thoughts on decency since Morris is on a mission to throw decency out the window. The film is not without moments of humanity—Omar does care about his friends and wants to make sure they join his cause pure of heart—necessary to allow us to believe in the emotional turmoil cropping up at the end. People do blow up and casualties do mount, but it is all for the endgame of laughs. So, give the film a chance for risking to mock a subject most wouldn’t dare joke about, let yourself be free to laugh at terrorism since we’ve spent way too much time crying from it, and realize that in no world would a Wookie ever be considered a bear.

Four Lions 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
[1] Nigel Lindsay as Barry, Kayvan Novak as Waj and Arsher Ali as Hassan
[2] Adeel Akhtar as Faisal
[3] Kayvan Novak, Arsher Ali, Riz Ahmed and Nigel Lindsay in Drafthouse Films’ Four Lions (2010)

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