What’s more dangerous: People who are intelligent but mean-spirited, or people who are stupid and misguided or misled? I can’t think of a single more relevant question to ask in America at this particular moment in time. It’s a fascinating coincidence that Four Lions is arriving here from the U.K. this week among all calendar weeks.
Four Lions is about a small group of British Muslims who are embarking on a career as jihadists. If that sounds scary enough, I’d better break the news to you that this is a comedy. Sure, they’re terrorists who are running around city streets with live explosives. But these guys aren’t very good at their chosen profession. Actually, for the most part, they’re idiots.
I saw Four Lions last night at the BAM Cinematek; director and co-writer Chris Morris introduced the film and sat for a brief Q&A afterwards. He spoke about how Four Lions is built on a heavily-researched foundation of three years or more. He cited incident after anecdote after trend that illustrated the reality that, as horrific and monstrous as the goals of terrorists may be, there is a very dark, very black brand of gallows humor to be found in the bungled plans and strange personal contradictions of the majority of them. For every terrorist who successfully carries out their crimes, there are several who make a wrong turn or a miscalculation and are caught or killed. Ironically, the world’s worst enemies are very often their own worst enemies.
The five main characters of Four Lions represent a diverse spectrum of idiocy:
1) There’s Omar (Riz Ahmed), the idealistic ringleader who leaves his security job with the support of his wife and young son to follow through on an awful notion.
2) There’s Waj (Kayvan Novak), his dim-witted sidekick who follows his every move, who is so slow that he may or may not be mentally impaired.
3) There’s Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the bullish white convert to Islam who wants to take over Omar’s leadership position but isn’t taken seriously by the other guys because he’s as stupid and impatient as he is angry and hateful.
4) There’s Hassan (Arsher Ali), the new recruit Barry brings into the group who seems to be in it for the show of it all. Terrorism is as much a platform for his bad rapping as anything else.
5) Finally, there’s the timid, even sweet Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) who has the important job of making the bombs but is otherwise pushed around by the others. (The crow on the movie poster is Faisal’s best confidant.)
Wait, the movie’s called Four Lions. Did you count five? Yeah, so did I. I’m probably not ruining much by suggesting that not all of them make it to the end of the movie, but even still, all five have prominent roles in the story. In that way, Four Lions reminded me of another politically-engaged half-a-satire, Three Kings. The discrepancy between the title and the actual number of main characters only serves to underline the disconnect that most of the characters view the world through. In the case of Four Lions, it’s also connected to a momentary oversight of the undervalued Faisal – but really, to me, it just suggests the general ineptitude carrying these guys’ entire enterprise. They’re much more Three Stooges than Four Lions.
If that’s the case, then Omar would be the beleaguered Moe, trying to balance a squad of incompetent and often bickering morons. Omar is likable and even sympathetic as cast and portrayed, but that would be forgetting that as the engine behind the whole scheme, his entire way of thinking is flawed. (Not to mention that he has a certain incident with a rocket launcher proving that he’s no better equipped for this evil job than any of his minions.) Waj and Faisal are unequivocably stupid people, but there’s a vulnerability to them that is strangely endearing. Barry is the most outwardly obnoxious character, but even he is more of a lout. It’s hard not to laugh when he yells at a car that won’t run for having “Jewish parts” – it really drives home the point that hatred based on ignorance is stupid and absurd. Racism would almost be funny if it weren’t so awful.
The point is that these characters are hard to hate, even if their ultimate goals are hateful. Four Lions suggests that the world is imperiled by madmen and morons, and what else can the sane man do but make light? – a point as relevant today as it was nearly fifty years ago when Stanley Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove. That’s a lofty comparison but Four Lions doesn’t shrivel beside it. Truly effective satire must be willing to go all the way in on a joke, and Four Lions does do that. Please don’t let me undersell how hysterical this movie is: It has more jokes, gags, and one-liners per minute of screen time than almost any other comedy I’ve seen this year. It puts movies like Grown Ups, which have about a joke or two every five minutes, to absolute shame. That fast and furious level of comedy forces you to pay close attention, and by doing so, to think about the questions it raises.
Is it okay to laugh about this subject? If your answer is no (which is an equally fine response though it isn’t mine), then why not? Why wouldn’t it be? This is a reality of our world that seems to have no intention of going away. Why can’t we laugh about it? Does laughing at it take away any of its power? Is there real-world value in satire? If satire is smart enough – and whether it’s to your taste or not, Four Lions clearly is very smart – then doesn’t it have a place? My personal opinion is that, even if it offends some people (it didn’t seem to offend anyone at the screening last night, by the way), at least this is a movie that is attempting to engage with some prominent international issues. It sure isn’t escapism, though the laughter it offers is fairly liberating. Four Lions is inspired, and politically alive, and also, terrifically funny. Seek it out, and bring your brain.
Four Lions opens tomorrow, Friday November 5th, at the Angelika in New York City.