Chris Morris' Four Lions generated buzz by being one of the first legitimate films to look at Islamic jihadists from a comic perspective, one that isn't informed by the lowest common denominator of out-and-out parody. In fact, with its deadpan humor and cinéma vérité style, it's like a terrorist version of This Is Spinal Tap, with several different characters taking their turn as Nigel Tufnel. But to suggest that Morris is only going for laughs would be to vastly underappreciate his agenda. In fact, far from using this as an opportunity to ridicule true believers who use violence to convey their message, Morris humanizes these radicals like no other Western film has been able to do, or maybe even tried to do.
The title of Morris' film is somewhat misleading, as there are actually five prospective suicide bombers who figure into this story, set in Sheffield, England. The loudest and most outspoken is Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a convert to Islam who's hiding in plain sight as a local Muslim spokesperson and regular attendee of public meetings. He's secretly planning an attack on the West -- the target of which is the topic of some debate -- with Omar (Riz Ahmed), a charismatic natural leader and family man; Waj (Kayvan Novak), a good-hearted simpleton who goes with the flow; and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), a skittish "explosives expert" given to experimenting in broad daylight. While Omar and Waj are called away to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan, where they quickly wear out their welcome, Barry recruits a young zealot named Hassan (Arsher Ali) after Hassan makes a demonstration at a public meeting, "detonating" several "bombs" filled with colored party streamers. When Omar and Waj return from Pakistan with their tails between their legs, it's clear the group must become the masters of their own destinies and find a local target on which to martyr themselves. A rift divides the group when Barry wants to bomb a local mosque, a counterintuitive plot intended to radicalize moderate Muslims, but Omar wants to hit a charitable fun-run, in which the runners will be wearing mascot costumes.
To be sure, Four Lions gets good mileage from poking fun at the various archetypal methods and procedures involved in terrorist behavior. The opening scene sets the tone, as the group records a video in which Waj is holding a comically small machine gun, then practices swallowing their cell phone SIM cards to avoid being tracked -- when in fact the reverse outcome would be achieved. Moments like these are scattered throughout the film, and almost always bring big laughs, in part because they show restraint, never crossing over into the realm of the ridiculous. It would have been easy for Morris and co-writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong to portray these men as clowns and bumblers whose every idea is moronic. The terrorists in Four Lions are funnier because they are basically intelligent men who have the resources and strategies to pull off an attack, but are often undone by a fatal blindness to the consequences of certain tactics and ideas.
Where Four Lions surprises is the moments that are not supposed to be funny, which never seem out of synch with the film's overall tone. Morris and company are genuinely interested in what motivates these men, as well as the apparent contradictions built into their lives. Take Omar, for example. He lives a basically Western existence with a loving wife and son, even using Disney's The Lion King as a metaphor to explain fundamentalism to his son. Yet their collective support of the jihad and its heavenly rewards is so ingrained, neither his wife nor his son seems overly concerned about the fact that their husband/father is planning to kill himself. Not only that, but when Omar's pacifist brother, Ahmed (Wasim Zakir), comes to their house, trying to talk Omar out of it, Omar and his wife laugh at Ahmed's enslavement to the principles of Islam, which state that he should not enter the same room as a woman who is not his wife. This gets at the core of how terrorists pick and choose which parts of the Qu'ran may support their agenda, ignoring the many more parts that seem inconvenient.
Shrewdly, Morris is not trying to paint his characters as fools for the various inconsistencies in their world view. He merely paints them as human, so thoroughly and so effectively that even the most hawkish counterterrorists in the audience should feel a limited affection for them as protagonists -- everyone else, much more than that. Speaking of the various public attitudes toward the war on terror, Morris also takes a telling stance on the regular British citizens who repeatedly encounter the jihadists at exactly the wrong moments. Even when confronted with a preponderance of evidence suggesting suspicious behavior, these Brits pathologically refuse to jump to conclusions -- a sly comment on how political correctness and fears of racial profiling have blunted our ability to identify legitimate warning signs.
Four Lions' balancing act between hilarious joke-slinging and earnest social commentary gives it a meatiness most comedies don't have, and a lightness not found in almost any film that takes terrorism seriously. In fact, if the war on terror could be brokered with the kind of grace and equal-opportunity humor shown in this film, common ground might not seem nearly so elusive.