Four Lions is one of the most intelligent, important, illuminating, disturbing, and uncompromising political comedies of recent memory. It takes one of the biggest risks a movie of this day and age can take, and pulls it off: It presents us with a farcical look at modern jihadism. And yet it’s not content with merely making us laugh at the very, very serious; it aims to humanize and shed light on a situation many of us are completely unfamiliar with apart from impersonal news reports and media generalizations. Set aside any notion that all Islamic terrorists are squirreled away in caves deep within Pakistan or Afghanistan – many live Westernized lives in densely populated cities, and as is the case with the planning of any large-scale event, there’s a lot of doubt, puzzlement, fighting, and mistake making.
The central character is Omar (Riz Ahmed), a disheartened English Muslim at odds with the world over its persecution of Islam and its followers. He longs to go to Pakistan and train as a soldier, which might be possible due to family connections. He has a wife and son, and they both expect he will not only blow himself up very soon, but also do it in such a way that it feels right in his heart. Unfortunately, he has to put up with three fellow jihadists, all of whom are a few coconuts short of a palm tree. Waj (Kayvan Novak) is easily confused and has no real idea what he’s doing or why he’s doing it. Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) is training crows to be suicide bombers due to the less than optimal health of his father. Barry, a white Islamic convert (Nigel Lindsay), is a raging, paranoid extremist who hates just about everyone, including Omar.
Omar and Waj travel to Pakistan only to return earlier than expected, their terrorist training having gone disastrously wrong. Barry then conceives of a plan to bomb a mosque, which he believes will inspire moderate Muslims to finally get off the fence and become jihadists. Omar is vehemently against the idea; he argues that murdering Muslims as a call to other Muslims makes about as much sense as punching your own face in the middle of a fistfight. Into this infighting enters a new recruit, Hassan (Arsher Ali), who raps and talks big about jihad and Muslim discrimination but is really just an angry kid in need of a big brother. Barry discovered him in the audience of a political debate, where he made a statement by setting off phony explosives loaded with streamers.
Even though the location of the bombing is still being argued, they all agree that a bombing will take place at some point in the not-too-distant future. In due time, they converge at a marathon run, their explosives concealed by rented cartoon costumes – the kinds that poor, unappreciated performers have to wear at birthday parties and sporting events. The heinousness of this plan is masterfully balanced by the sheer absurdity of it; there are times when I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh at these men or shudder at the thought of innocent people being killed. I had a similar reaction when Omar delivered the film’s greatest line of dialogue: “I may ask you to blow yourself up, but I will never ask you to piss in your own mouth.”
One of the things I enjoyed most was director Chris Morris’ ability to focus our attention on nuances hidden within the overall situation. Most movies about terrorists would not only be deadly serious, but would also provide us with a very broad view of the actual terrorist act, in effect neglecting the characters and the emotion. With Four Lions, the overall situation is secondary to the ups and downs of making it happen. With Omar, for example, we know that he’s plotting a terrorist attack, but we’re more interested in the fact that he has to do all the work because the other jihadists are incompetent fools who don’t make terrorist tapes so much as extended blooper reels. Although most people are not extremists who have masterminded a bombing, working towards something and feeling as if your progress is being slowed is undeniably relatable.
The film’s single greatest accomplishment is its balancing act between satire and sincerity. Morris and his writers are essentially acknowledging that within comedy there is a great deal of truth, and that we can recognize that truth even when we’re laughing hysterically. This isn’t to suggest that drama isn’t truthful, although it certainly goes about in a much different way. The film exposes frailties that are all too human, and by making us laugh at them, we own up to our own inherent flaws. Comedies work best not when they beat you over the head with a gag, but when they personify a highly ridiculous situation. Four Lions is a masterpiece of tone, characterization, performance, theme, and dialogue. It’s without a doubt one of the best films I’ve seen all year.