Four Lions: A Review

Today’s Hollywood is too busy blaming the Bush administration—still!—for all the evils in the world to fully address the problem of radical Islam.

Witness this month’s release of Fair Game, a movie so moth-ridden that it thinks audiences still care about the Valerie Plame affair. Or that they ever did in the first place.

So along comes Four Lions as a full-throttled correction from across the pond—and a slapstick comedy, to boot. The English film follows four hapless suicide-bombers-to-be who can’t decide on a proper target.

The movie’s comic premise is both blissfully simple and overripe. What kind of healthy 20-something thinks it’s smart to blow himself up to take out a handful of infidels—assuming that everything goes according to his nefarious plan?

Why shouldn’t filmmakers mock these murderous dolts, stripping them of both their humanity and respect?

Yet Four Lions is too amused by its concept to fully deliver the promise within. We snicker at some of the shtick on display, but the film’s moral compass is MIA as is the delicate tone that the better black comedies demand.

It’s a bit of a mess, to be blunt, but a grand experiment all the same.

Meet Omar (Riz Ahmed), the leader of a cell of wannabe terrorists itching to give their lives to Allah. They’re partial to rap music and the occasional burst of Karaoke, and they spend their copious free time cutting Jihadi videos.

“I’m the most al-Qaeda here,” one cries during a typical chest-thumping exchange. But they’re dead serious about blowing themselves to smithereens. All they have to figure out is why and where.

Some think they should target a mosque—to radicalize the moderates, they reason. But the rest see a whole bunch of juicy Western targets in their Northern England neighborhood as ready to be detonated.

Being a successful terrorist, alas, isn’t easy. Two “Lions” jet off for some intensive martyr training in Pakistan but manage to incinerate their colleagues during a missile misfire.

It’s the first of many explosions meant to conflate comedy and mayhem—often with mixed results.

British comedian Chris Morris, who directed and co-wrote the film, must know that using terrorists as a film’s protagonists could render them sympathetic. And it does, to an extent. Omar’s compassion for his fellow “Lions” feels real, and it’s hard to drum up outrage for the dopiest member of the gang so easily brainwashed that a dog with a shiny object could do the trick.

But Morris and company aren’t making excuses for their ghastly behavior, nor does the movie get bogged down in any “root-cause” arguments for the modern suicide bomber.

The film works best when mocking the hysteria from the radical crowd.

“We got people playing stringed instruments … it’s the end of days,” one “Lion” cries. And later, when the gang’s car stalls for the umpteenth time, the driver blames “Jewish spark plugs” for the problem.

That’s the kind of comic premise—radicals blaming the Jews for all their struggles—that could have given Four Lions some narrative stability. Instead, it’s a one-off moment quickly abandoned.

The film wheezes to a finale set during a marathon run by people in silly costumes. It’s an easy tell that a comedy lacks enough fresh ideas when a character dresses in drag or dons a furry disguise.

Four Lions also excoriates police efforts to bring down the terrorists. The Keystone Kops look like “24’s” Jack Bauer in comparison. The anti-terror agents are constantly assaulting the wrong Muslims, a possible critique of aggressive tactics in the fight against radical Islam, but one with little bite.

The titular “Lions” look as if they couldn’t steal an all-day sucker from a toddler, but they know enough about explosives to be dangerous. It’s an underlying theme that gives the movie a whiff of excitement.

Even the most amateurish terrorist can do plenty of damage. Who doesn’t think of a simpleton like shoe-bomber Richard Reid every time you go through airport security?

And the wacky terrorists here are plenty lethal, which drenches the film’s final 20 minutes in an inky shade of black.

There’s more than one reason why mainstream movies avoid tackling terrorism on a grand scale. It plays into the conservatives’ world view that real dangers threaten us, and liberal Hollywood simply won’t have that. Plus, it makes studio executives nervous about politically incorrect fallout. Remember the hue and cry over the 1998 film The Siege, a movie that dared to depict Muslims as terrorists?

Four Lions goes a few miles further than that prescient film.

The new film stands as the most ambitious project of the year, one willing to wring laughs out of a delicate subject and doing so from politically neutral ground. But the movie simply doesn’t generate enough big belly laughs to make us forget about the real terrorism around the globe.