‘Four Lions’ Dares to Humanize Terrorists Through Satire

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CHICAGO – If the objective of war is to drain the enemy of all humanity, then “Four Lions” is one of the best anti-war movies in recent years. Many people prefer thinking of terrorists in the same abstract terms that the terrorists themselves think of their victims. If war is all about demonizing “the other side,” how can we ever hope to come to a mutual understanding?

British satirist Chris Morris has made a career out of tackling controversial issues, whether on the airwaves of BBC Radio or in his acclaimed TV shows, such as “The Day Today,” a mock news program that debuted two years prior to “The Daily Show.” The news studio included a “physical cartoonist” who preceded his still-life sketches with a dryly delivered explanation of their meaning. This hilarious routine perfectly encapsulates the sort of self consciously comfortable comedy that makes Morris squirm. He has no interest in relying on safe comic caricatures to get a laugh. His goal is to subvert stereotypes, not reinforce them.

One of the most daring aspects of Morris’s feature filmmaking debut, “Four Lions,” is the fact that there is nothing inherently funny about its basic premise, which centers on a group of British jihadists intent on blowing themselves up. The lead character, Omar (Riz Ahmed), has many qualities one would attribute to the conventional hero persona. He’s a dedicated family man, a passionate rebel and a seemingly natural leader. When he finds himself momentarily racked with self-doubt, his wife comes to the rescue, encouraging him to realize his dreams. We’ve seen this scenario in countless other inspirational pictures before, but in the context of this plot, it is utterly chilling (and more than a little bewildering). The fascinating thing about Omar and his bumbling band of brothers is the degree to which they are fallible, conflicted and woefully misguided in their self-righteous crusade. Though there have been some great films made about the psyche of a terrorist (such as Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now”), “Lions” is the first to mine its fundamental absurdity.

Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak and Riz Ahmed star in Chris Morris’s Four Lions.
Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak and Riz Ahmed star in Chris Morris’s Four Lions.
Photo credit: Alamo Drafthouse Films

It’s certainly no coincidence that this picture has drawn comparisons to last year’s comic masterpiece “In the Loop,” which skewered the British and U.S. governments with a similar level of foul-mouthed zeal. Both films were co-written by Jesse Armstrong, who perfected the art of observational humor in his side-splitting series, “Peep Show,” which may stand as the ultimate farce about twentysomething manhood. Morris also worked on the “Lions” script with Armstrong’s frequent collaborator Sam Bain, and the trio succeeded in making a film that will appeal to fans of contemporary British comedy, with its dialogue-driven scenes punctuated by painfully awkward silence.

There’s one particular exchange between the fiery Islamic convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay) and the slow-witted Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) that could’ve easily been performed by Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington. Barry discovers that Faisal has purchased an entire roomful of liquid peroxide from the same shop. When Barry worries that the store owners may have become suspicious, Faisal reassures him that he made his orders over the phone using different voices…one of them being a “terrorist” voice. This is one of many moments in the film that builds to heights of such bizarre, straight-faced lunacy that it’s guaranteed to leave audiences roaring with laughter. Yet as in “Dr. Strangelove,” the laughs in “Lions” have a tendency to get stuck in the viewers’ throats.

Four Lions was released in local theaters on Nov. 12.
Four Lions was released in local theaters on Nov. 12.
Photo credit: Alamo Drafthouse Films

As outrageously nonsensical as these gags may seem, they were all inspired by years of research Morris put into exploring terrorist cells, and their various instances of monumental ineptitude that further prove the time-tested cliché that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. One of the funniest and saddest characters in the film is Waj (Kayvan Novak), who at first resembles nothing more than a plucky sidekick. Yet it is increasingly apparent that Waj has become entirely dependent on allowing others to think for him. When he has last-minute doubts that his heart is truly in his work, Omar helpfully explains, “That’s your brian disguised as your heart.”

His scenes reminded me of Dan Reed’s extraordinary 2009 HBO documentary “Terror in Mumbai,” which chronicled the overwhelming carnage caused by ten young Pakistani men. They were controlled the entire time by the voices of their elders, whose voices were heard via intense phone conversations. One terrorist was seen gawking at the lavish scenery in Mumbai, clearly dazzled by an environment that clashed with his sheltered existence. Another immediately expressed remorse upon being captured. It’s precisely these kernels of raw, honest and deeply flawed humanity that Morris uses as fuel for his poignant and provocative satire.

Yet that’s not to say “Lions” isn’t also funny as hell. The cinematography by Lol Crawley (“Ballast”) effortlessly captures the exuberant chemistry generated by a first-rate cast of unknowns. The fearsome Lindsay is especially memorable, whether he’s cursing his car’s faulty spark plugs for being “jewish,” or punching himself in the face to make a point. It’s impossible to entirely reap the rewards of this film during an initial viewing, since its priceless moments are endless. The use of Toploader’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” is positively Kubrickian, evoking memories of “We’ll Meet Again” in “Strangelove.” There’s an argument over the difference between a bear and a wookie that had me laughing long after the end credits finished rolling. And let’s not forget the film’s final ironic punch line, which plays like the ultimate punch in one’s own face.

‘Four Lions’ stars Riz Ahmed, Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay, Arsher Ali, Adeel Akhtar and Benedict Cumberbatch. It was written by Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain and directed by Chris Morris. It opened Nov. 12 in local theaters. It is rated R.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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