Film Review: Four Lions

Brassy burlesque careens between droll humor and slapstick stunts until it implodes upon itself during a prolonged and extremely uncomfortable climax.
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Imagine The Three Stooges with a Muslim makeover—call them Mohammed, Fariq and Khoury—knocking heads and twisting noses as they wreak mayhem in the name of jihad. If you can, you’ve grasped the concept behind Four Lions, a vaudevillian farce revolving around a band of Islamic nincompoops intent on avenging the infidels. The notion is a stretch in our politically correct era, but recall that Moe, Larry and Curly made shorts in the early 1940s lampooning Hitler and the Third Reich (“You Nazty Spy!” and “I’ll Never Heil Again”). The performances were said to have earned the trio a special place on the Führer’s hit list.

Director and co-writer Chris Morris, the comic genius behind the award-winning BBC series “The Day Today,” is, of course, careful to point out that the movie lampoons lamebrain wannabe terrorists, not religious radicals. “You don’t have to mock Islamic beliefs to make a joke out of someone who wants to run the world under sharia law, but can’t apply it in his own home because his wife won’t let him,” he says in an interview published on the film’s British website. There is, however, a larger issue: Should satirists appropriate a subject so ineffably disturbing in service of righteous satire, in order to spoof the emissaries of death and destruction as well as our own inflated, sometimes irrational fear of them? That is to ask, are we cynical enough to make jokes about martyr suicides who, for all their bumbling, actually manage to blow up the London Underground and other high-profile targets around the world on a regular basis?

Four Lions begins promisingly, with the gang arguing strategy: Is it better for a homegrown terrorist cell to go it alone or train with proper holy warriors in central Asia? Informal ringleader Omar (Riz Ahmed), a security guard with a wife and child, overrules Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a self-regarding nihilist partial to the old ultraviolence, and the boys jet off to northwest Pakistan, where they are harassed by patronizing mujahedeen and predator drones, only to be thrown off the island. Back in England, they decide to manufacture crude explosives to detonate during a charity fun run in London. This requires them to dress in costume—ninja turtle, gangly ostrich, that type of thing—for a Benny Hill chase where everybody blows up real good.

Morris and co-writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain hang a series of bits on this narrative clothesline that are, by turns, spot-on clever and sketch-humor silly. A town-hall meeting to educate the community on racial stereotyping devolves into just that: funny because it’s all too real. One of the gang attempts to turn crows into flying missiles: not funny because it’s contrived.

Armstrong also co-wrote last year’s hilariously profane In the Loop, a far more intelligent film, but Four Lions fits into the same subcategory—cheeky British parody. But taking the piss out of Islamic terrorists (even if the filmmakers disavow the adjective) is a bit like having a laugh at the expense of pedophiles…it’s simply too uncomfortable a topic. Omar and crew look appropriately goofy running amuck in buffoonish outfits until we remember (if we ever forget) that they intend to kill innocent people in horrible fashion.

Conscious of this dichotomy, Four Lions turns slightly serious, or perhaps we should say earnest, as the film unfolds. The aspiring martyrs (Arsher Ali, Kayvan Novak and Adeel Akhtar round out the cast) may be dumb as rocks, but the filmmakers encourage the audience to develop a certain empathy for them, especially for Omar, who tells bedtime stories to his young son intended to inspire him, we must assume, to become a martyr himself, a fate seemingly approved by his mother, Sophia (Preeya Kalidas). No matter that Sophia is a modern woman who rejects the traditional role of women as chattel, a position advocated by Omar’s fundamentalist but nonviolent brother; she makes clear her liberation by soaking him with her son’s water pistol.

Viewers aren’t meant to pursue this fractured logic too closely, or at all, just as we can’t contemplate the end game looming over this have-it-all-ways burlesque. Like Albert Brooks’ Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, the idea of the film is better than its execution.