Interested in testing the limits of the moviegoing public? Make a comedy about terrorism. At least, that’s what Christopher Morris has done with his feature film debut, “Four Lions,” a movie that will no doubt stir up controversy if it ever finds a distributor brave enough to release it in theaters. A pitch-black satire in the same vein as “Dr. Strangelove,” Morris has created a film so relevant to our current political climate that many will feel guilty just for watching it, let alone laughing at all the gut-wrenching humor along the way. For as risqué as the material may be, however, it’s impossible to deny that “Four Lions” is one of the funniest, most provocative comedies of the last decade – and one that has more to say than any of the numerous self-important war movies that Hollywood has been cranking out for years.
The film follows a group of wannabe suicide bombers from Britain who are so inept at being terrorists that they’re more dangerous to themselves than any potential target. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the most level-headed of the bunch, but when he’s kicked out of an Al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan because of his dim-witted friend, Waj (Kayvan Novak), they return home to find that their partners in crime, Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) and white Islamic convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay), have recruited a fifth member (Arsher Ali) to the cause. Desperate to save face, Omar informs the others that they’ve been ordered to blow themselves up at the London marathon.
But for this team of bumbling idiots, that’s a lot harder than it sounds. When they’re not busy attaching bombs to crows, embarrassing themselves in jihad videos, or coming up with new methods of anti-surveillance, they’re bickering among themselves like old ladies. The power struggle between Omar and Barry provides the catalyst for most of these arguments, because while Barry might seem like the ideal person to be in charge, he has such radical ideas (like blowing up a mosque so that the peaceful Muslims rise up and join their fight) that it’s easy to see why he would fail as a leader.
The intensity of a character like Barry, however, is what ultimately makes “Four Lions” so successful, because Morris treats the material with such veracity that the jokes hit harder as a result. These guys might be complete imbeciles, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’ve managed to stockpile a dangerous amount of explosives capable of doing some serious damage. In fact, for all the comedy bred out of the film’s set-up, there are still quite a few unsettling moments scattered throughout, including a thrilling finale in the streets of London. Even more disturbing is the relationship between Omar and his family. His wife doesn’t only support what he’s doing, but seems to encourage it, while his son has become so familiar with the idea of jihad that his bedtime stories feature Simba and his fellow animal friends from “The Lion King” as suicide bombers.
It’s this kind of dark humor that makes “Four Lions” more of a tragicomedy than a satire, because even though the would-be terrorists can hardly be considered the heroes of the story, Morris makes them so likeable that you don’t want anything bad to happen to them. We know their intentions aren’t good, but because we’ve become so used to laughing at their blunders throughout the course of the film, we never really identify them as much of a threat. That’s mostly thanks to a brilliant script (co-written by Morris and two of the writers responsible for last year’s scathing political satire, “In the Loop”), which takes the buddy comedy formula and applies it to a hot-button topic with great aplomb. “Four Lions” may not be the first of its kind – Paul Weitz’s “American Dreamz” also flirted with the concept of mixing terrorism and comedy – but where that movie proved that no subject was taboo, Christopher Morris’ film demonstrates that sometimes it’s easier to get people to pay attention when you’re making them laugh.