A lot of movies have been made about terrorism, but you have to admit that most of them haven’t been very funny. In fact, many of them have been real downers. This deficiency is rectified in “Four Lions,” a gutsy, hilarious comedy that turns terrorists into buffoons while still treating terrorism seriously.
How can such a balance be achieved? I dunno. Magic, probably. It helps to have a screenplay where three of the four credited writers also worked on “In the Loop,” one of the most scorchingly funny movies of 2009. The fourth writer, who is also the director, is Chris Morris, well known in England for his ability to smartly satirize even the most taboo subjects. It’s a good thing, too, because let’s be honest — if you’re going to make a terrorism comedy, you’d better know what you’re doing, comedy-wise. This is graduate-level course work here, not beginner’s stuff.
“Four Lions” employs the time-honored device of having one normal person surrounded by crazy people. The normal one is Omar (Riz Ahmed), a British Muslim who has decided to go the jihad route. Granted, that is not “normal,” per se, but Omar at least appears to be sane, if ideologically misguided. In establishing his own cell, the best he can do for recruits are Waj (Kayvan Novak), a cheerfully stupid sidekick; Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who bought gallons of liquid peroxide at the drug store but was careful to use different voices every time he went in, to avoid suspicion; and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the only Caucasian in the group, a convert to Islam, and easily the most belligerently zealous. He is ridiculously orthodox. “We got women talking back! We got people playing stringed instruments!”
The question that these four must answer is what form their terrorist attack should take. Barry says they ought to bomb a mosque. The mainstream Muslims would assume the infidels were responsible, and they’d be incensed into radicalization. Omar patiently explains why it’s not a good idea for an Islamic terrorist cell to bomb an Islamic place of worship. Omar and Waj are invited to train with real terrorists in Pakistan, but their incompetence screws it up for them. Various people get blown up while trying to do other things. And so it goes.
The format of the film is similar to “In the Loop,” in that it mostly consists of people sniping at each other, saying idiotic things, and then sniping about the idiotic things that have been said. Morris and his co-writers get the tone exactly right, making the would-be terrorists into bickering dopes, no different from any other squad of men who have to work together. Bringing terrorism down to the level of an office comedy takes the terror out of it, and it’s shocking how funny “Four Lions” often is, purely from the standpoint of well-written absurd one-liners and general snarkiness.
But, as if it weren’t daring enough to make a comedy about terrorists, Morris takes it a step further with Omar. Omar is no dummy, nor is he an unhinged lunatic. He has a wife and child who support him in his endeavors. He’s a decent family man — a decent family man who wants to be a suicide bomber. We briefly meet his brother, a faithful adherent of Islam who, like 99.9 percent of all Muslims, wants no part in terrorism, and this provides the contrast we need to remind us that, for as “normal” as Omar seems to be, he has still gone off the tracks. But there remains that haunting idea: Omar is a regular fellow. Son of a gun, that’s probably true of most terrorists. They’re all regular people, with regular people’s flaws and foibles.
What I appreciate most is that Morris isn’t doing this for shock value. It’s easy to think of things that are taboo and then find a way to make inappropriate jokes about them. I do it all the time, at home, just for fun. The tricky part is to make the jokes justified, to show that you have intentions beyond simply creating controversy. “Four Lions” never feels exploitative or obnoxious. It’s edgy, yet it never seems like it’s trying to be edgy. I admire anyone for having the nerve to try something like this, and I especially admire Morris for pulling it off in such a breathtakingly funny way.
A- (1 hr., 42 min.; )