This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
“Four Lions,” the slippery first feature from British comedian/provocateur/fearless satirist Chris Morris, is going to win the above title by default. Few films indeed are willing to combine terrorism and comedy — I’ve always entertained a soft spot for the train wreck that is Paul Weitz’s “American Dreamz” just for trying.
So, infinite points to “Four Lions” for the sheer audacity of its premise, which is made to enrage — four would-be jihadists living in northern England bumble their inept way through ideology, training camp, bomb-making and actual attempted acts of terrorism. But here’s the thing: “Four Lions” isn’t always a comedy, per se — there are parts that are very funny, but just as many parts that linger on, deliberately and uncomfortably treading the outskirts of a joke without ever getting to it, as if taking audiences to task for thinking themselves worldly enough to want to find laughs in this movie.
The cell is made up of Omar (Riz Ahmed), the smartest and most competent member (though the bar’s set awfully low); Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the blustering Walter Sobchak-esque rage-filled convert who often challenges Omar’s place; Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), the stupid one; Waj (Kayvan Novak), the even stupider one; and latecomer Hassan (Arsher Ali), who’s a bit of a dilettante.
The start of the film offers the intriguing read that, for these men, jihadi culture offers the same kind of appeal as gangster rap — a sense of rebellion, purpose, masculinity and overall bad-assery. They’re not particularly devout — in contrast to Omar’s much-mocked brother.
When they talk about their motivations, what comes out is a garble of “Western this” and “chain store that,” which is hardly reflected in how they live their lives (the bedtime story Omar tells his son is the plot of “The Lion King”). Mostly, they like the self-importance, and they like posing with guns — they meet in a shabby apartment above a shop and try to shoot appropriately threatening videos of themselves.
Things change when Omar and Waj, thanks to a family connection, are sent to Pakistan for actual training, something they’re hilariously unsuited for — a stunt involving a rocket thrower, the film’s comic highlight and one of its best revisited jokes, gets them sent back to the UK, where an embarrassed Omar lies that they returned with a mission to take action. They make preparations, power struggles within the group ensue, and the future of the boys’ suicide bombing mission gets called into question — oh no!
As there’s increasing fallout from the plan, “Four Lions” seems less willing to try to wring laughs out of what’s happening, and instead turns to needling the genre to which the film technically belongs — the “Full Monty”esque dramedy about how a group of losers succeeds in an unlikely field against all odds. Take the scene in which Omar, having left the cell, discouraged, gets cheered up by his smiling wife, the film’s most problematic character by a mile. She tells him he was much more fun when he was trying to blow things up, and that he should go back there and show them who’s boss. There’s no punchline; it’s played straight, a mirror of a dozen similar scenes that we’ve seen in movies before, only in this case she’s given him the go-ahead to presumably kill as many people as possible while in the process of leaving her alone to raise their child.
What does it mean? The world of the film is realistic even as the guys tend towards cartoonishly bungling, which makes a scene like that one extraordinarily difficult to pin down. And even more so is the end sequence, a tragedy played out in the madcap trappings of crowds, costumes, cellphone mishandlings and chases through cafes.
If I had to lay it out, I’d say “Four Lions” is intended to be, not a jihad satire, but a satire of the idea of a jihad satire, of the belief that humor of even the edgiest variety can effectively be troweled on to any topic to make it accessible, to humanize or defang it.
Or maybe I’m overreaching. What I am certain of is that “Four Lions”, comedy or not, is a genuine odd duck of a film.
“Four Lions” opens in limited release November 5th.