Thursday, March 31, 2011
The biggest success of Christopher Morris’s Four Lions lies in how easily it gets its audience to embrace its central conceit. The film follows five would-be British jihadists whose attempt to pull off a suicide bombing in London is constantly thwarted by their overwhelming stupidity. Think of the group—which features one white convert who refers to himself as Azzam al-Britaini—as the Keystone Cops of terrorism. They can’t agree on a target (one suggests a mosque), stumble through every attempt to procure explosives, and in a particularly hilarious subplot, are summoned to Pakistan for training only to inadvertently deliver a hammer blow to Al Qaida.
Morris is working in high satire here, but he does it with a great deal of humanity, to the point that we root for these oafs to pull of their misguided jihad in spite of any semblance of political correctness we might try to bring to the material. Not only that, but the script is full of the kind of subtle humor that keeps its characters from ever becoming too cartoonish. Consider Omar (Riz Ahmed), the group’s least dimwitted member, who we see is constantly at odds with his more traditional Muslim neighbors. In one hilarious scene, he and his wife—a liberated woman who seems more modern and independent than many of her Western counterparts—blithely laugh at the conservative hangups of a peaceful Muslim who tries to warn Omar away from violence. Guess which one the authorities think is a terrorist. In another scene, Omar provides his young son—who excitedly awaits his father’s martyrdom—with a retelling of The Lion King that paints it as a story of revolt against consumerist oppressors. In both cases, Morris is able to weave a sense of irony into the film that keeps it from ever feeling like its relying too strongly on shock value.
It’s scenes like these that keep the film afloat in its more repetitive moments, when it seems to languish a little too long in the gang’s boneheaded antics. At times, Four Lions does border on feeling like a great short that’s been expanded into a just good enough feature. Ingratiating as the characters’ stupidity is, once we’ve come to expect them to fail, the story loses a bit of its edge. Still, this film is full of the kind of deft satire that made films like Dr. Strangelove so vital. The ability to make light of such a seemingly horrific scenario is something worth appreciating. It’s the same kind of boldness the guys at South Park—a show always ahead of the curve comedically—showed when they made an episode that depicted Osama Bin Laden as a Looney Toons-esque buffoon. In the same way, Four Lions uses its bumbling characters to strip the suicide bomber of any power by rendering them dull, ineffective, and ridiculous at the same time that they’re oddly sympathetic. That central opposition might not ever be resolved in any satisfying way, but just creating it is certainly an achievement in itself.