by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Christopher Morris
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, and a very special guest star
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 83% Certified Fresh
PLOT: A small group of incompetent British terrorists set out to train for and commit an act of terror.
The world of cinema has a long history of taking subjects traditionally considered taboo and turning them into comedy. German concentration camps? Life Is Beautiful mines it for comedy. P.O.W. camps? Ever hear of Hogan’s Heroes? What about Hitler himself? The Great Dictator and Look Who’s Back lampoon him perfectly. Race relations? Look no further than Blazing Saddles. In recent years, even 9/11 has become a kind of punchline for jokes, with varying degrees of success. As with all comedy, context is king.
Such is the case with Four Lions, a British film from director Christopher Morris. In it, the subject and especially the philosophy of suicide bombers are, forgive the pun, exploded with equal doses of logic and ruthless humor.
Omar (Riz Ahmed) is a member of a “cell” of extremists who imagine themselves to be part of a glorious Jihad against Western civilization, but who, as Omar himself puts it, can’t even “stir their tea without smashing a window.” In the opening scene, Waj (Kayvan Novak) is trying to make one of those videos claiming responsibility for a terrorist act, but the cameraman points out that the gun he’s holding is too small. It’s actually a replica of an AK-47, but it’s about half scale. Waj solves the problem by first saying he has big hands, then by simply moving closer to the camera. Can’t argue with that logic.
Their leader, Barry (Nigel Lindsay), is a Caucasian man who has converted to Islam and become a true believer – “radicalized”, I think is the word. (Director Christopher Morris says he’s based on a man who was once a member of a far-right, fascist party in the UK; in an attempt to “out-knowledge” the Asian youths he regularly assaulted, this man studied the Qur’an in depth…and as a result “accidentally” converted himself and became a Muslim. Talk about truth being stranger than fiction.) Barry is no prize either. He knows all the proper buzzwords and catchphrases, but he is convinced the best way to defeat government surveillance when walking outside is to constantly shake your head back and forth. So your face will come out blurry. Once again, unassailable logic at work.
The fourth member is Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who buys up large quantities of bleach and liquid peroxide for bomb-making, but to do so he had to make several trips to the same store. To make sure no one at the shop suspected, he used different voices every trip, including a woman’s voice. Barry objects: “You’ve got a beard!” Faisal explains he covered his beard with his hands when he used the woman’s voice.
“So why has she got her hands on her face, Faisal!?”
“…cos she’s got a beard.”
Again…impeccable logic leading to ridiculous actions. The movie is chock full of these kinds of perfectly logical reasons for doing absurd things. A movie with only two dimensions would simply use that same lens, point it towards the actions of suicide bombers, and congratulate itself on its cleverness. But Four Lions, hilarious though it is, goes another level deeper.
Omar has a wife and young son. They are both totally on board with Omar’s plans for becoming a suicide bomber. All three are convinced that his act of martyrdom will ensure his place in Paradise where he will eventually be reunited with his family. When Omar discusses his plans with his wife, Sofia, she is calm, cool, and collected, as if they were discussing when and where to buy their next house. When Omar tells his son a bedtime story, he makes changes to the story of The Lion King, so it more closely reflects his own beliefs, and the son smiles and eats it up. Chilling.
But then Omar’s brother, Ahmed, pays a visit. Ahmed is what I would call an “orthodox” Muslim, wearing the robes and head coverings and the longer beard. By contrast, Omar is dressed in far more “Western” gear and trainers. Ahmed has gotten wind of Omar’s plan and wants to try to talk him out of it because the Qur’an teaches non-violence…but his orthodox beliefs also state he can’t be in the same room as Omar’s wife. Omar makes a point that, according to Ahmed’s beliefs, there are “60,000 opinions saying we can’t fight back! We must measure our beard with a ruler and lock our wives in a cupboard!”
What you’ve got here is a key lesson in great comedy. Be funny, but have a point. What is the point here? In my opinion, the point of this scene is to single out the vast contradictions possible in any kind of religion where extremists have staked out territory on the fringes. A man believes in non-violence but can’t be in the same room as a woman. Another man believes in martyrdom but has water gun fights with his son and wife. They’re both right and they’re both wrong. We tend to see one viewpoint as being hand in hand with the other by default, but Four Lions makes the case that great variety is possible. A man in a robe and a long beard is not automatically a terrorist. A man with a loving wife and family is not always the “good guy.” Nothing is black and white.
But I don’t want to make the movie seem like it’s some kind of grand polemic on religious intolerance. It has its serious moments, yes, but damn, is it funny. I’m trying hard to think of another movie where a bunch of terrorists wind up running in a fictional “fun-run” marathon dressed as a ninja turtle, a cowboy riding an ostrich, an upside-down clown, and an orange bear. (Actually, I’m not quite sure that’s a bear…that would be a question for the police.) Or where one terrorist’s master plan involves strapping a bomb to a crow. Or where a short discussion is held to determine exactly which parts of a car are Jewish. As they say in the clickbait ads, the answer to that question may SURPRISE you!
(Also, if you’re a fan of Star Wars, I apologize in advance for any trauma you may experience…you’ll see what I mean.)
Admittedly, the subject matter of this comedy may turn off some viewers. That is their right. But if you’re an admirer of sharp-edged comedy that takes no prisoners and follows its own logic to its inexorable conclusions, Four Lions is gold.