Four Lions declares a fatwa on your funny bone

November 11, 2010

What kind of stories does a bumbling, would-be homegrown jihadist tell his son before tucking him in to bed? According to Four Lions, the provocatively dark debut comedy from British satirist Chris Morris, he tells him the same children’s stories we all know—in this case, the Lion King. But in his version things are a little different, because Simba and all his cuddly friends are martyrs who strap bombs to themselves to defeat the evil Scar.

“They’ll be in heaven before their heads hit the ceiling,” the son says, smiling. Laughing yet?

Four Lions is a comedy, except for all the times when it’s not. And when it’s not, it is a brutally dark film about extremism and suicide bombing. With great success, it flips the switch from slapstick comedy to terrifying reality, keeping the audience constantly off balance. Dramatic twists in the plot open them up for a sucker punch sight gag—like the sudden explosion of a bomb-laden crow, the groups newest weapon in the war against the West.

The film opens on a Monty-Python-esque group of aspiring suicide bombers who are filming a video in hopes of being recruited to mujahideen training camp in Pakistan. Their sloppy execution immediately betrays their inexperience. Unable to get his hands on a real AK-47 to point menacingly at the camera, for example. Waj, the most inept of the group, settled for a child-sized toy replica. “Nah man, it’s me hands brotha. I got big hands,” he insists.

Despite their incompetence, the group is eventually invited to training camp, where it quickly becomes clear that they are neither as focused, devout, or prepared as their brothers in arms—but this only strengthens their resolve to bring chaos home to London.

Four Lions perpetually dances on the edge of becoming too bleak or too intense, but the way Morris unflinchingly moves forward with his comedic conceit is impressive. He takes a serious subject and undercuts it with comedy in a way that will probably piss off a whole lot of people. But the jokes are strongest when things are at their most dire, to the point where you almost feel bad for laughing so much. A police sniper shooting the wrong man is not funny. A police sniper frantically rationalizing his mistake shooting the wrong man because he doesn’t know the difference between a bear costume and wookiee costume is.

For all of Four Lions’ absurdity, though, its honesty is what makes the film. The characters are foolish and misguided because, by and large, those are the people who find themselves attracted to terrorism. Excellent acting prevents these characters from becoming caricatures. Riz Ahmed is fantastic as Omar, the group’s leader who provides his cohorts with some semblance of conscience and reason, while Kayvan Novak imbues Waj with a naïveté that is sweet and heartbreaking.

There’s no room to play it safe when it comes to comedy. It is strongest when it is clever and irreverent and gets its audience to laugh at what scares them the most. With Four Lions, Chris Morris fearlessly confronts an issue that few people are even comfortable discussing, let alone joking about. He dares you to be offended, and at times you probably will—but only after you’ve caught your breath from laughing.

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Butler Benedict

What the fuck does this kid know about terrorism?