Riz Ahmed as Omar
Arsher Ali as Hassan
Nigel Lindsay as Barry
Kayvan Novak as Waj
Adeel Akhtar as Fessal
Directed by Chris Morris
A stylized mockumentary, “Four Lions” goes behind the scenes of a secret cell of England-based Islamic radicals and would-be suicide bombers.
In its simplest form, “Four Lions” plays as a strong bit of sketch comedy, amusingly woven together as a mockumentary. Coming from writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (responsible for the wonderful British television series “Peep Show”) and first-time feature director Chris Morris, the film is more than serviceable as a straightforward farce of some very silly people doing some very stupid things. What elevates the film (or, at least, should elevate discussion thereof) is the subject matter. In the real world, these are individuals whose actions would offer some pretty scary consequences and whose acts would not typically be portrayed as a laughing matter.
There’s maybe a debate that will be offered up from the “too soon” crowd, suggesting that such a serious and impacting issue shouldn’t be filtered through a comedy lens but, frankly, that’s the entire point. “Four Lions” doesn’t set out to make light of serious issues simply for the sake of a joke but, by creating a laugh, aims to take away some of the fear involved. In exactly the same way that the threat itself of a potential bombing is a powerful weapon (being the proliferation of terror) the belief that these faceless villains are a bunch of clowns is an equally powerful mental defense and arguably as powerful as art gets.
There’s an additional commentary on art present in “Four Lions,” too, that the film manages to weave quite well into its narrative in that pop culture has a definite impact on the characters and the way they act. The lead character, Omar (Riz Ahmed), relates his own story of planned martyrdom to his son by way of “The Lion King.” While there’s a clear cut argument for him not being a very good person, there’s distance between Omar and even those closest to him that itself is relatable to the audience in a transcendent connection through pop culture. In many ways, the character isn’t all that disparate from Jean-Paul Belmondo’s turn in “Breathless” in that, while we can’t, per se condone firing a automated weapon on someone, we totally understand why a would-be terrorist would want to take a Facebook profile picture holding one. It’s a small bit of humanity that “Four Lions” showcases perfectly. The suggestion that, while we’re capable of doing horrible things to one another, we’re both going to laugh at a funny YouTube video. The implications of that are both comforting and terrifying.
Another area where “Four Lions” should really be commended is in not taking the easy way out and resorting to caricature. Though it’s certainly easy to diminish a threat with a cartoon (a good example of which can be found figuratively and literally in the case of WWII-era “Looney Tunes”), Morris’ film never resorts to negative propaganda. The protagonist is a family man operating from a point of national pride and we’re also shown that he’s not a particularly conservative Muslim. In a world where terrorist acts are often written off as an extreme consequence of a misguided religion, that’s an awful important distinction to make and one that “Four Lions” does both with subtlety and without sacrificing an ounce of its comedy.
Where the film does falter a bit is in its format which, while it attempts a cohesive narrative, is sometimes a bit transparent as a string of comedy sketches. As such, there’s very little room for character development. That’s the kind of problem you wouldn’t care about when comparing “Four Lions” to “This Is Spinal Tap,” but it’s a big detractor when putting it up against something like “Paradise Now.” Still, the fact that that it manages to fall anywhere between those very, very different movies should serve as a testament to what makes “Four Lion” unique and worthy of both viewing and analysis.
The Bottom Line:
Funny, smart and original, “Four Lions” has a lot to say without ever hitting you over the head or standing on a soapbox. It’s a layered film that more likely than not improves with multiple viewings. It’s a minor shame that most of the running time is not as great as the film’s best gags, but even if this isn’t filmmaking at it’s best, it’s certainly filmmaking at its most noble.