“This plays like a penny whistle jammed up an orangutan’s butt.” Lines like that come easy to English writer-director Chris Morris, whose satirical sensibility has made him one of “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci’s inner-circle collaborators and a bit of a controversy magnet in his own right. Remember “Four Lions,” the unapologetically offensive 2010 comedy about an inept British terror cell that opened with the bloopers from an al-Qaida-like video recording and ended with a pair of clumsy mujahedeen killing Osama bin Laden by accident? That was Morris’ idea of a reasonable way to confront the hysteria over jihad: Fight extremism with extreme comedy.
In Morris’ latest powder-keg feature, “The Day Shall Come,” the only thing more outrageous than the jokes are the facts that inspired it. The film ends the way so many American action movies do: with a terrorist attack averted and a couple of special agents shaking hands as the brown people are carted away to jail. Except in this case, there was never any real threat of catastrophe, and so the celebration leaves you feeling sick, realizing that the country’s anti-terrorism efforts have grown so over-zealous that our most trusted law enforcement entities have resorted to cooking up false crises so they can play the hero.
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Morris doesn’t necessarily mean to imply that the FBI are useless, although the acronym might as well stand for Fallible Bureau of Investigation in his eyes. In the tradition of “In the Loop” (not his film, but clearly a model for the fast and loose mock-doc format) and “Veep” (where the insults escalated almost exponentially) he populates the agency with a trio of quick-wit idiots ready to spar amongst themselves: can’t-be-bothered bureau chief Andy (Denis O’Hare), ambitious underling Kendra (Anna Kendrick) and out-of-his-league mouth-breather Stevie (Adam David Thompson). The agents are always ready with a cut-down — and Morris doesn’t hesitate to let his cast break character just to land a good zinger — but when it comes to getting anything done, they’re as hapless as the Keystone Cops.
Ideally, the South Florida FBI would spend its time stopping credible threats to national security, but in the absence of any such schemes, it decides to pressure an informant into approaching a hapless would-be radical named Moses Al Shabazz (Marchánt Davis) and nudge him in the direction of breaking the law so that it can stop him. That may sound ludicrous, but Morris takes as his inspiration the case of the Liberty City Seven, a high-profile coup in which the FBI made headlines when it prevented a South Florida group from attacking Chicago.
Upon closer inspection (and far less widely publicized), the Miami group’s laughable plan, which reportedly involved conjuring a tidal wave to flood the Windy City, “would supposedly have been pulled off by seven construction workers riding into Chicago on horses,” as Morris describes in the press notes. “These guys weren’t even Muslims, they were Haitian Catholics,” he explains. Turns out, theirs was hardly an isolated case (the movie opens with the words “based on a hundred true stories”), as the FBI made a habit of pressuring targets into incriminating themselves — a chilling trend further exposed in the 2015 documentary “(T)error.”
If anything, Moses and his followers (all three of them) and their Islam-adjacent splinter sect, the innocuously revolutionary Star of Six, are slightly less silly than the Liberty City Seven. Nearly all religions seem ridiculous when examined in the present; most have a few centuries of acceptance working in their favor. By presenting this particular leader as a charismatic but imbalanced fella who’s clearly off his meds, Morris slyly punches holes in the origins of all faiths — which, of course, are accorded protection under the U.S. Constitution, until such time that the ATF surrounds and incinerates them.
By far the best thing about “The Day Shall Come” is Morris’ discovery of Davis as Moses (much as “Four Lions” boosted Riz Ahmed). This is one hell of a way to launch a potential movie-star career, but Davis possesses both the magnetism to make credible his role as leader of a religious group (however small) and the comic gifts to sell the character’s cuckoo beliefs. Referencing the day God spoke to him through a duck, Moses declares nonviolent war on “the gentrificators,” rejects “the gun weapon” in favor of a crossbow and believes he can fire lasers with his brain. But unless he can raise some money fast, the group will see its tiny urban farm repossessed.
After Kendra happens to catch one of his sermons on social media, she suggests the FBI make Moses’ micro-cult its next mark. So what if Moses doesn’t know the difference between the Islamic State and the IRS? Or if the group’s skin isn’t the right color for the obviously racist assignment it’s been given? As Andy rationalizes it, “Their skin’s black, but they’re basically brown.”
Clearly, Morris is content to frolic on the wrong side of politically correct, exaggerating certain stereotypes and lobbing provocative ideas that are as likely to upset social justice warriors as they are to titillate his more edgy-minded ideal audience. He’s an equal opportunity offender, skewering minorities as well as wussy topknot-sporting frat boys and casually misogynistic cops. (There’s a certain tackiness to portraying those willing to die for their beliefs as idiots — as he did in “Four Lions” — but who’s going to come to the defense of neo-Nazis when a character calls them “in-bred knuckle-draggers”?)
The dialogue flies fast in “The Day Shall Come,” as does the plot, which treats the fact that it’s confusing and downright nonsensical at times as part of the joke. With foreclosure looming, Moses needs $50,000, and he mistakes it as some kind of divine sign when a shady acquaintance (Kayvan Novak) offers him cash and guns, not realizing the FBI is behind the offer and that he’s effectively being bribed to play along. In one of the film’s craziest scenes, Moses shows up on horseback at the FBI’s Miami HQ (a wonky-looking modern building to which the production successfully manages to make look as if it had access) and offers to turn himself in, hoping to collect the ransom for his own arrest.
For the FBI, that would mean blowing a perfectly good publicity opportunity, so Kendra sends him back out and watches the situation worsen, as Moses tries to sell dummy nukes on the black market. Funny as Anna Kendrick can be elsewhere, she’s awkward in this particular role, which acknowledges the way female agents have to go toe-to-toe with aggro men in such a testosterone-fueled work environment (where the bros call her “sweet cheeks” and “chipmunk”), but feeds her nuclear-grade comebacks no one of either gender could be expected to hatch on the fly.
By the final standoff — in which Moses, armed with only a dummy bazooka, finds himself surrounded by guns-drawn squads from multiple agencies — Kendra has somehow become the moral center of the film, like Harvey Keitel slo-mo-running toward the cliff in the last scene of “Thelma and Louise.” Here, the absurdity undercuts the tension, and all the characters feel so much like cartoons by this point that a bloodbath would be just one more bad-taste joke, rather than a real human tragedy. The title suggests that the revolution Moses is praying for will someday arrive, but that shouldn’t be nearly as scary to Americans as the fact that his own government is trying to push people like him over the edge. That day is already here.