REVIEW: Ambitious If Faltering Four Lions Gets Laughs Out of Junior Jihadists
Terrorists aren't very funny when they're flying planes into your buildings. But aspiring terrorists who accidentally blow up unfortunate sheep, or who choke on the SIM cards they've been trained to swallow, or who return to the same beauty shop over and over again in search of massive quantities of hydrogen peroxide, ostensibly throwing the shop proprietor off the trail by using a high-pitched phony-femme voice (without bothering to shave off that telltale beard) -- now those kinds of terrorists might be good for a laugh.
And in Four Lions, a farce directed by British comedian Chris Morris, they sometimes are. Four Lions tracks the sideways-and-backwards trajectory of a group of junior jihadists in the north of England who have absolutely no idea what they're doing: All they know is, they're doing it in the name of Allah. The group includes Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a hothead Muslim convert who thinks the best way to further the cause is to bomb a mosque (it's a surefire way to "radicalize the moderates," he argues); Waj (Kayvan Novak), a simpleton who can't get through the taping of a recruitment video without digressing into a reverie about fast food; and Hassan (Arsher Ali), a sometime rapper who specializes in what he calls "jihad of the mind." ("It's the gesture that gets ya," he says of his sub-poetry-slam wordplay.)
The ringleader of this band of terrorists still wobbling on their training wheels is Omar (Riz Ahmed), a young family man who, somewhat grimly, has obliquely prepared his young son for the suicide mission he knows he'll eventually undertake. There's also a fifth terrorist, Faisal -- played by Adeel Akhtar -- but he meets an unfortunate end fairly early on, during a training exercise out in the country: He detonates the explosives he's carrying by running a little too fast, taking that poor aforementioned sheep with him. After his mates have collected his bloody bits and stuffed them into a sack, they try to figure out where he falls on the heroism scale: Martyr or dickhead? One pipes up, as an argument for the former, "He attacked the food supply."
That's just a sampling of the kind of mischief these four fundamentalist schlemeils get up to: Their masterplan, though, is to blow themselves up during the London Marathon -- cleverly, they'll be wearing silly costumes, like an upside-down clown outfit. It may be an absurd homegrown plan but, as it turns out, it's not necessarily a benign one.
That willingness to trek into some fairly dark corners is what gives Four Lions its sting. Morris -- the co-creator, with Armando Iannucci, of the fake-news BBC program The News Today -- isn't afraid to tread too close to hot-button issues. The result, though, is that Four Lions sometimes isn't that laugh-out-loud funny. Its gags start to feel repetitive midway through the picture; the characters' ineptitude seems to be the single characteristic that defines and unites them, and there are only so many times you can strike that gong.
Eventually, they do emerge, somewhat, as recognizable human beings. But while Morris (who cowrote the script, with Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain and Simon Blackwell) draws out our sympathy for them, he doesn't ask for our approval. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Morris explained that he did a lot of research before making the movie and found a surprising amount of "Keystone Kop" behavior among Islamic terrorist recruits. (He cites a group of terrorist trainees who set up camp in the woods but whose fear of mice drove them to sleep in their van.) You can't feel sorry for jihadists -- even absurdly funny ones -- who blow fellow human beings to kingdom come, and Morris doesn't let his numskull characters off the hook. These aren't just ineffectual clowns: Morris follows their glassy-eyed zeal straight through to its all-too-predictable outcome.
The idea, in the end, is that even lovable loonies can do a lot of damage. Four Lions is both ambitious and faltering: It takes guts to mount a comedy about Muslim terrorists in the first place. But what can you ultimately say, that's either funny or profound, about people who go around blowing up themselves and others in the name of God? Still, it's no small measure of Morris' cockeyed humanity that he makes us feel something for these pathetic losers, particularly when one of them begins to question the validity of the enterprise he's staked his life on. Whatever the flaws of Four Lions may be, the movie neither coasts on multicultural smugness masquerading as openness (of the "They have their reasons" variety), nor does it reach for any cheap philosophical answers. And if its punchline is one big existential kaboom, Morris at least allows for the possibility of a wail of pain behind it.