It’s hard not to laugh at the befuddled, wannabe terrorists in Christopher Morris’ new film Four Lions, because they’re genuinely hysterical. And if you get a little uncomfortable laughing at them along the way, well, that’s kind of the idea.
Omar (Riz Ahmed) is serious about jihad. He’s a modern-day, London-dwelling Muslim with a gorgeous wife and a smart kid, but he wants nothing more than to blow himself up in the name of Allah. He spends his off-hours formulating his suicide-bombing plan with his mates and checking out online jihad videos that are better than the ones he and his friends try to make. But Omar’s biggest problem isn’t making a bomb—it’s dealing with the bumbling idiots who comprise the rest of his cell: Guys like Waj (Kayvan Novak), who’s too simple-minded to understand how serious everything is; Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), who’s even dumber; and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white convert who’s full of rage and a desire to be more Al Qaeda than his friends.
We like to think of terrorists as evil, scheming masterminds. But these guys are, well, just guys—guys whose elevators don’t go all the way to the top floor, let alone a heaven populated by virgins. Morris, who did plenty of research in making the film and spoke to plenty of extremists, is careful to also present devout Muslims who aren’t interested in violence, but he’s onto something here. After all, there’s been no shortage of would-be holy warriors who’ve gotten all the way to the finish line before tripping over their own feet. It’s generous to refer to the Shoe Bomber or the Underwear Bomber as bombers at all, since neither was clever enough to head into his plane’s bathroom to seal the deal. Of course, we’re lucky that guys were unsuccessful, but their incompetence suggests a level of dimness that’s exhibited by the characters in Four Lions, guys who find themselves circling their own final solutions for all the wrong reasons. It’s less about a dedication to an extremist faith than it is about peer pressure and a desire to be cool for their own blooper-laden YouTube messages.
The interactions between the would-be suicide bombers are a riot, especially once Barry recruits young Hassan (Arsher Ali) into the mix. Morris, who co-wrote the film with three other writers, provides crisp, crackling dialogue that expresses both the ill-considered fanaticism of the film’s protagonists, as well as the extreme banal western consumerism and decadence that has the Lions so riled up. It’s oddly insightful, even though it doesn’t exactly strive to get to the heart of the matter.
And that’s where Four Lions falls a bit short. It does manage to humanize Omar and his friends, and as the climax draws near, and they’re strapped into bombs and ridiculous costumes, looking to cause death, destruction and mayhem amid the London Marathon, you find yourself feeling a twinge of sadness about characters you’ve grown fond of preparing to come to their ends. That, of course, is the nature of satire—to force us to look at a situation through a comic lens, and in that regard, Morris and his co-conspirators succeed. At the same time, his Lions, while they’re all very funny, are more archetypes than people, and it’s to the actors’ credit that the characters are so pleasing. What Four Lions does not do— nor does it attempt to do—is truly explore the motivations behind terrorism. But it’s a start. A very, very funny start.