Consider the extraordinary impact of terrorism – permanent war, the revelation of The Constitution as a disposable document, and further coarsening of the public discourse to the point where useful conversation is impossible amidst individuals who disagree violently and are totally committed to their mindsets and worldviews. In such an environment, it is impossible to take any discussion on terrorism seriously. On that note, one of the best comedies of the year is about suicide bombers planning an attack in central London. Such a project is risky on its face, and should be a tonal nightmare of bad jokes and worse taste. Fortunately, this is in the hands of Channel Four films, and Four Lions is executed with that uniquely British combination of playing the narrative straight with a sustained assault of goofy shit.
A cell of extremists led by (or dragged down by) a radical and extremely loudmouthed imam plan to stick it to the West with the worst assemblage of talent outside of the Trailer Park Boys. Extremists make for easy targets in comedy – this has been The Daily Show’s bread and butter for some time now. By definition, fanatics exhibit an utter lack of perspective, rationality, and any sense of humor; they tend to react violently to any sort of criticism when it comes to their feeble-minded views and head for the hills of dogmatic rhetoric. This does not depend on their ideology – Christians, Muslims, Jews, conspiracy theorists, Trekkies, teabaggers – they are identical in their loony convictions and contemptuous of those willing to change their mind based on current information. It is impossible to imagine Four Lions originating in the United States, a nation utterly divided over how to deal with terrorism and humorless about both the humiliation of 9/11 and the irrational response. Though the UK has its own issues in this regard, it has the twin blessings of distance and caution, and so it is that the UK gave birth to one of the few films about terrorism that manages to get it right. The balance is a tricky one, perched somewhere between satire and humor played straight. The director has some affection for his characters, and each is imbued with consistency to match stupidity in a discipline that requires a mix of posturing and obliviousness amidst absolute conviction.
I would elaborate the plot in summary, but none of it really matters. The basic idea is that the titular Lions are preparing for an attack of some sort, there is training in Pakistan, and an assembly of a team that is something less than Seven Samurai for the job. Irrelevant all, because this film is relentlessly funny, endlessly quotable, and always ready to go to that next shit. I never got the impression that these guys were an actual cell planted for any real purpose, except maybe Omar (Riz Ahmed) who has a Jihadi uncle in Pakistan. They all seem to be simultaneously fanatical about Islam while having no idea what the religion actually means, let alone the concept of Jihad. Barry (Nigel Lindsay) is so confident about his feel for Islam that he feels free to make it up as he goes (“Dogs contradict Islam!”) and leaves twin tower cakes in the local synagogue after 9/11. The other two are interchangeably dim, one convinced that a coop of chickens is actually a hutch for rabbits with no ears, the other working to equip crows with bomb vests to attack targets like, um, birdhouses.
This would all be fairly disposable comedy if it were not well-written with sharp dialogue. Four Lions, though, pushes into classic territory as it captures the mindset of the fanatic. They all want to look like the ultimate jihadi without really knowing why or what the long-term impact will be of their actions. Barry hatches an ingeniously thick plan to bomb the mosque (full of losers, spies, and women playing stringed instruments) and blame it on Israelis to inspire other Muslims to start a war and “fast-forward to the end of days”. And then tapes himself taking credit for bombing the mosque. This could have just been a dumb joke, except the whole point of taking credit is the struggle of the egocentric to feel as though they changed the world despite being too dumb to find a way other than blowing up random people.
The entire film is packed with jokes that are almost too clever. The idiot college kid who plays the race and religion card while staging a fake bombing in a lecture hall, the ‘gesture’ of driving a car very slowly into a wall, the congenial scenes between Omar and his wife, who is happily supportive of his efforts at mass murder; throughout much of the humor is at the expense of basic Muslim beliefs. Do not fall for thinking Four Lions is taking the piss out of Islam – ridiculous beliefs are applicable to any belief system that would inspire martyrdom. Still, the film allows enough of a distance from being a diatribe that only a humorless asshole would take offense at any of this.
‘The bear is down.’ † ‘I think that is a Wookie.’
‘We are the martyrs, y’all just smashin tomatoes!’
‘Your microwave has been well-sacrificed, brother.’
Though this is funny to the point of being addictive, it is one of the best films of the year by taking a taboo (for cinema) subject where it needs to be taken. The third act surprisingly pushes through to the attack itself, and when the death toll begins to mount, the tone remains miraculously intact. Comedy becomes tragedy, but only in that the best comedy is tragic. The affectations of the would-be soldier give way as the pointlessness of these gestures becomes obvious. In the end, the point is made, none too subtly, that all terrorist attacks are in vain. Not because the democracy is too strong, mind you, but because no belief system should be taken too seriously.