Review: “Four Lions”

Will Leitch
The wacky terrorists of "Four Lions." Drafthouse Films
The wacky terrorists of "Four Lions." Drafthouse Films

1. Earlier this year, Mother Jones magazine asked, "Are Terrorists Dumb?" It was a relieving question to have asked: For all our existential fear -- and palpable, physical fear -- about a terrorist attack, it is soothing to remember that terrorists are human beings just like the rest of us, driven by base human impulses and prone to same general dopiness as the rest of humanity. (My "favorite" example of this is Mohammad Salameh, one of the bombers of the World Trade Center back in 1993, asking for refund on his deposit for the van he rented that held the bomb.) It makes us feel safer believing that terrorists are uneducated dolts who would be attacking us all the time if they weren't so incompetent that they locked their keys in their cars, like with the Times Square bomber did last spring. After all, who among us hasn't locked their keys in their car before? We're dolts too.

2. "Four Lions" is the most vivid example of this comfort, irrational as it may be. It is to the credit of director Chris Morris that he resisted to call his movie "Four Stooges." We meet four London terrorists, led by Omar (the excellent Riz Ahmed, who's also in zombie miniseries "Dead Set"), the one borderline intelligent one who can't get his moronic charges in line. The other terrorists aren't particularly well distinguished; they're all stupid in pretty much the same way. They practice blowing themselves up by martyring pigeons. They can't figure out which targets to attack, at one point deciding to "blow up the Internet." Their secret online meeting place is the (fake) children's social networking site "Puffin Party." (Their cute avian avatars discuss jihad in little thought bubbles.) In my favorite gag, they attempt to disguise themselves from federal surveillance by shaking their heads back and forth "so we come out blurry." They're total, profound nincompoops.

3. Much of this is quite funny; it has the same rhythm and pacing at last year's (better) "In The Loop." Of the foursome, I found myself most drawn to Barry (Nigel Lindsay), who's essentially the Eric Cartman of this quartet. He's the most hard-line of the foursome, the biggest bully and definitely the most dangerous. Lindsay's terrific at showing that Barry has a violent streak that transcends any religious extremism: He wants to blow up everything, and doesn't particularly care or understand why. (At one point he blames his car breaking down on "Jew spark plugs.") He's a riot, like most of the film. It's just that, well ... I don't want to sound like a fuddy-duddy here, but I'm just not sure that funny is enough here.

4. That's to say: I'm not sure what this movie is trying to say here. Dan Kois of The Village Voice argues that the taboo-breaking of the premise is the point all together, but that strikes me a little like cheating. Sure, it's funny, and the idea of a story about suicide bombers played as farce has its own audacious charm ... but then what? I'm not sure there's much here besides the premise. There's a intriguing subplot about Omar's brother, who is peaceful and rejects his brother's jihad ways, and some warm moments between Omar and his wife and son, both of whom cheerfully accept that Daddy is gonna blow himself up some day because that's just his job, and love him anyway. These scenes with Omar's family are fascinating but belong in an entirely different movie; here, they're either set-ups for long-con jokes (Omar's brother is, of course, arrested by police and thought to be the real terrorist) or discarded entirely (we never get a call back to Omar's wife, even with a credits denouement). These are serious topics, and to raise them, in a slapstick comedy, is writing checks the movie has no interest in cashing. The film's finale involves an attack on the London Marathon, but the movie never decides if we're supposed to find the attacks serious or not. Omar has a small crisis of confidence, but just when we're wondering what's going on in his head, there's Barry running from cops with a bomb attached to his waist while wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume. These are problems inherent with making a terrorist farce, of course, and as much as Morris tries, I'm not sure he ever solves them.

5. All that said, I'm pretty happy "Four Lions" exists. For whatever issues the film might inherently have, I shudder to think what could how the film could have gone wrong but doesn't. Morris is certainly giving it his all, and so is his uniformly excellent cast. There are a few misfires -- a scene where the terrorists have to pretend to be gay to keep their cover is an obvious clunker -- but that the jokes consistently work is a credit to Morris' balancing act. I still think it's a terrible idea to try to make a terrorist comedy, and that it couldn't possibly work entirely, but it is like the old joke about a dog that walks on its hind legs. It doesn't matter that it's not done perfectly; it's just a wonder that it's done at all.

Grade: B.

Interview With Chris Morris [Yahoo! Movies]