I firmly believe that anything can be funny. Which isn’t to say that I think anything is
funny. I loathe comedy that circumvents wit and actual joke writing by
simply presenting offensive material as if it were a joke in and of
itself; there are miles of distance between, say, Louis CK and Andrew
Dice Clay. Four Lions
– the inaugural release of Drafthouse Films (as in famed Alamo
Drafthouse) – asks you to find humor in Muslim terrorism. I’m sure there
are a great many Americans who will find that idea insufferably
offensive and boycott the film. Of course, these bores never would have
seen the film in the first place, regardless of its subject matter (they
likely didn’t see In the Loop last year, despite its lack of terrorists). Considering the touchy nature of its concept, I think one of Four Lions strengths is that it isn’t really trying to offend. As a connoisseur of dark comedy, I found Four Lions to be fairly tame actually. I also found it to be extremely funny.

The
story follows the incompetent struggles of a small Muslim terrorist
cell in Sheffield, England who long to be suicide bombers. The members
are Omar (Riz Ahmed), who is our central character, his simpleton
man-child friend Waj (Kayvan Novak), the meek Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), and
the surly and power hungry Barry (Nigel Lindsay), who is a white
convert to Islam. After Omar and Waj disastrously bungle a trip to a
legit terrorist training camp in Pakistan, they hightail it back to the
UK to discover that Barry has recruited a fifth member, the obnoxious
wannabe rapper, Hassan (Arsher Ali). Spurred by the need to make amends
for his Pakistan fuck-up, Omar decides to finally lead the group on a
suicide-bombing mission. Their target: the London Marathon. 

What I found most surprising about Four Lions,
is how familiar the film feels. It would take fairly little effort to
turn the script into a generic Guy Ritchie knock-off about five Anglo
idiots trying to pull a robbery during the London Marathon. Much of the
dialogue could stay almost completely intact, as most of the jokes in
the film are about stupid people being stupid, not Muslims being
Muslims. To this end, I’m already sensing a small backlash on Four Lions
from people who think the film is getting undeserved praise simply
because it is tackling terrorism, that were the film not about such edgy
material its supporters would ignore it as a lesser comedy. This is a relevant critique, and I don’t think it is a dismissive one. After
all, a major plot point, and heavily featured trailer gag, involves Omar
accidentally firing a rocket launcher backwards and hitting the wrong
target. I’m pretty sure I recall that same gag from the trailer for
Larry the Cable Guy’s Delta Farce.

Four Lions
is an absurd movie. It is a farce, with plenty of miscommunication
jokes and moments of heightened reality (I’ve seen other critics compare
it to the Three Stooges, both favorably and negatively – which is
interesting). To put things into perspective, director Chris Morris
referred to the film as the “Dad’s Army side to terrorism.” (Dad’s Army
being a beloved UK sitcom from the 60’s/70’s.) This approach could have
been a slippery slope, but the script and
performances are all extremely surefooted, preventing the film from ever
sinking to a mire of crass silliness. So possibly the film is not as
classy as some would demand, but personally I think that is what makes
it clever. Like the best episodes of South Park, there is a nimble genius in approaching such touchy material with such a broad take. That itself is part of the joke.



Like the majority of great British comedy, Four Lions
is an exercise is awkward conversations and stinging put-downs – the
Brits love to make you feel excruciatingly embarrassed for their
characters. The script, by Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong, and Sam Bain,
is fabulous, a great mix of self-contained sketch-like bits and quotable
dialogue. There is a great scene in Pakistan where Omar and Waj learn
that a true mujahideen must be
willing to kill a friend, and the two start excitedly describing how
willing they would be to kill the other, but with a drunken “I love you
man” tone (this then takes a more dramatic turn later in the film).
Another scene in Pakistan, where Waj can’t comprehend that they flew
over Mecca to get to Pakistan – “Mecca is in the East, bro.” – is very
representative of what I was trying to say about the film’s humor –
while the outward details of the joke are Muslim, the joke itself could
be about anything. Waj, referred to by Barry as a “special needs
donkey,” gets a lot of the best bits and lines in the film. I think it
is highly probable that you and your friends/date/spouse will leave the
theater saying, “Rubber dinghy rapids, bro.” Speaking of rubber dinghy
rapids… the film is extremely British, but aside from a few words lost
to indecipherable accents, I found nothing lost in translation. As is,
the most confusing bit is an important gag at the end of the film
involving the “Honey Monster.” I have absolutely no idea what the fuck
the Honey Monster is (I presume the mascot for some manner of Limey
cereal or something), but contextually it doesn’t really matter if you
know. The themes and characters and jokes in the film work for any
audience.

Shot with an ambiguous docu-style perspective, the
film has the visual and verbal tone of a Gervais/Merchant joint. Morris
is well known across the pond for his TV work, and he originally
conceived Four Lions
for British television, so this seems somewhat natural. I’m unfamiliar
with his TV work, but from the film it is quite apparent that Morris has
a great sense for palatable satire. Much of the satire is fairly
surface level, like when the wannabe rapper Hassan opens his coat during
a city council meeting to reveal a bomb; the bombs turns out to be fake
and he indignantly says to the terrified crowd, “Just cause I’m Muslim
you thought the bomb was real?” But the film also digs a little deeper
too. While not poking fun at Islam so much as fanatical theocracy in
general, the film milks a lot of comedy from our characters bickering
over their interpretations of the Koran, and the fact that they are all
so very British in their interests – rubber dinghy rapids, “Puffin
Party” a ridiculous on-line social network they all use – highlights the
absurd and pointless nature of their extremism. 

The
relationship between Omar and his family is probably the most unique
aspect of the film, the only subplot that couldn’t easily be Guy
Ritchie’d into a non-Mulsim crime flick. One of my favorite scenes in
the film is a quiet moment when Omar uses the Lion King
as a bedtime metaphor on his son to try and explain away his colossal
fuck-up in Pakistan, continually twisting the story around until the boy
agrees that Simba is in fact a hero for what he did (Simba very
obviously standing in for Omar, in Omar’s mind). Then there is Omar’s
wife, who is lovingly supportive of Omar’s desire to become a
suicide-bomber. The fact that Morris manages to make the scene where
Omar shows up at his wife’s job, to let her know that today is the day
he blows himself up and murders a bunch of heathens, somewhat touching,
is when I knew that Four Lions was maybe on to something.



Truth be told, for the first half of Four Lions,
while I was routinely laughing my ass off, I also didn’t think the film
was doing anything special. I probably would have agreed with those
critics who think the film is getting an easy pass because of its
subject matter. But once our gang commences their mission, things get
kicked into another gear. The satire comes out in full force (especially
in the aforementioned Honey Monster scene, where British snipers prove
to be a bit trigger happy), and the comedy gets very dark and extremely
funny. The woman next to me at my press screening said she thought the
film got a little self-serious at the end. It does, but I took it as a
joke. The gag of the entire film is that we’re following what is
supposed to be an all-important, life-defining act of sacrifice for our
characters. The film isn’t from the perspective of non-Muslims, it is a
hypothetical parody of what a serious dramatic-thriller would be like if
al-Qaeda had a film industry. Of course it is going to get self-serious
at the end. I think the sensitive subject matter (and foreign accents)
have some people looking too hard at the film. This isn’t supposed to be
a Tom Stoppard play. “Dad’s Army side to terrorism” says it all.

The worst thing I can say about Four Lions
is that I do think they could’ve taken the satire farther, as the most
biting material was directed at the British police forces – which only
applies to the very end of the film. But, of course, I’m only saying
that because of the subject matter. Ignoring what one does or doesn’t
think Morris was obligated to do with a comedy about Muslim extremism,
underneath it all Four Lions is a funny, funny movie.

8.5 out of 10