Four Lions (2010)
Written by Chris Morris, Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong, & Simon Blackwell
Directed by Chris Morris
Nine years after the events of 9/11, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq raging on, as ISIS was growing in power, four radicalized British Muslims want in on the jihad. They aspire to be suicide bombers but want to do it legit so that they end up as kick-ass martyrs. Two of the men, Omar and Waj, fly to Pakistan to train with al-Qaeda but end up using a rocket launcher the wrong way round and blow up part of the training camp. Meanwhile, Anglo convert to Islam Barry recruits Hassan, a young Arabic rapper who wants to create a “jihad of the mind.” When Omar returns the group devolves into arguments about what exactly to bomb: a mosque and pretend they were Jews, a pharmacy because they sell birth control or some as to be determined target.
You could argue there were two paths for British satire in the 1990s: Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris. While Iannucci has moved from The Thick of It to directing two feature films and helming HBO’s Veep, Morris hasn’t enjoyed a similar trajectory. Fans of British comedy would know the face of Chris Morris from his stint as Denholm Reynholm on The IT Crowd. He’s most famous/infamous for his newsmagazine parody Brass Eye, one of my favorite pieces of British comedy to come out of that era. If you have not seen the series, a quick search on YouTube will take you down that rabbit hole. What’s disappointing to say though is that, while recently revisiting Four Lions, I was deeply underwhelmed by how badly its aged.
When you’re making a movie like Four Lions, everyone is keenly aware of the sensitivity of the material. This is a comedy about Muslim suicide bombers. That isn’t going to land lightly on audiences. What I did like about the film’s portrayal of this situation was how nonchalant Omar and his wife Sofia and their son act about the impending terrorist attack. It’s discussed as casually as planning a vacation or buying a new car. The slyest satire in the movie comes from these subdued family scenes because they highlight the absurdity of Omar’s act more intensely than the more overt comedic scenes. I also appreciated how the film addressed Omar’s hypocrisy about Western capitalism.
When his fastidious brother visits, he won’t be in the same room as Omar and Sofia due to his interpretation of the Koran. Omar mocks him for this and uses one of his son’s water guns that is lying around the house to blast his brother and humiliate him. Later, Omar tells his son a bedtime story about the planned attack but substitutes all the real people involved with characters from the Lion King. On the way to the attack at the end of the film, the whole crew sings along to Toploader’s cover of Van Morrison’s Dancing in the Moonlight. The irony is that during the film’s denouement it’s Omar’s brother who gets renditioned and threatened with torture. While Omar dresses and behaves in a very secular manner, his brother is the one promoting peace and staying devoted to the precepts of his religion. The brother is the member of the family MI5 believes to be tied to terrorism.
Where Four Lions soured for me is the more generic comedic bits, the ones not tied to the concept of the film. While recording a video where they issue their jihad, Waj uses a toy assault rifle that is comically small in his hands. There’s a bit about him positioning himself so that the perspective is better and the joke just didn’t hit for me. That’s the first scene, so I was worried how badly downhill the rest of the movie was going to be. It’s a bad sign when the comedy you are watching telegraphs the jokes so blatantly that I was thinking “Oh this is the part I’m supposed to be laughing at.” I think my problem was that these more obvious bits of humor didn’t feel like satire, they were physical gags and visual jokes that didn’t add to the overarching themes of the movie, that didn’t shine a light on anything. I don’t dislike silly comedy for silliness sake, in fact, most comedy I enjoy falls into that category. However, here it just failed for me. Chris Morris has been a collaborator on Veep and is responsible for some fantastic satire. It’s sad that I found the film he is touted for doesn’t live up to my memories.