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Film Review: Four Lions

Four Lions (2010; Directed by Chris Morris)

Omar and his friends want to be Islamic terrorists, but jihad, like pimping, ain’t easy. In between being bored by his jogging-enthusiast supervisor (Craig Parkinson) at an anonymous security job, raising his impressionable son, and being a good husband to his lovely wife (Preeya Kalidis), Omar (Riz Ahmed) must shepherd his four largely inept and error-prone fellow holy warriors towards a glorious, explosive martyrs’ end, preferably while taking the lives of as many kafir as possible in the process. In dramatizing their wacky (and occasionally heavy) misadventures, British film and TV provocateur Chris Morris suggests that ideological fanaticism and hilarious stupidity are far from incompatible, and indeed encourage and feed on one another.

Allahu Akbar!

Mostly set in an anodyne English suburb (evidently supposed to be in Sheffield, though it’s impossible to tell from the mix of regional accents), Four Lions approaches various issues surrounding the War on Terror with a highly British sense of unyielding satirical bravado. Indeed, the film brings the major laughs with such relentless consistency that it’s easy to miss how many very sensitive buttons it is pushing. The script, by Morris, Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong, and Simon Blackwell and based on three years of exhaustive research, lampoons Islamic fundamentalism mercilessly, but it also takes the mercilessness of the ideology of suicide bombers quite seriously. These guys are idiots, but they’re motivated idiots. Idiots who kill.

But my oh my, are they idiots. There’s Waj (Kavyan Novak), Omar’s endearingly dim buddy, who thinks chickens are rabbits (Omar: “Where are their ears, then?” Waj: “That’s what I’m saying!”), suggests blowing up the Internet, and unwisely films all of their exploits on his mobile phone. He has a child’s credulity when it comes to jihadism (he characterizes the martyr’s fast track to paradise as “rubber dinghy rapids”, a phrase referencing a theme park ride which confuses the heck out of the police hostage negotiator), and Omar begins to feel that he is leading his easily-confused friend down a road he hasn’t intended to choose.

There’s also Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), a developmentally-delayed man-child who buys dozens of bottles of bomb-making bleach from the same pharmacy (disguising only his voice, and poorly at that), envisions strapping explosives to crows and flying them into sex shops, and has an unfortunate run-in with a bag of combustible material, a stone meadow fence, and a sheep. There’s Hassan (Arsher Ali), a lanky Media Studies drop-out who ends up on the radar of the terror cell with an attention-grabbing stunt involving a fake suicide bomb filled with Silly String at a panel discussion, and who raps his anti-Western fatwas for their omnipresent video camera.

Finally, there’s Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a blustering and belligerent white Briton convert (his Muslim name is Azzam Al-Britani) who suspects spies and undercover agents everywhere and takes to swallowing cell phone SIM cards to hide his transgressive activities from the ever-present technological surveillance of the state (that the supposedly all-seeing tracking satellites would still be able to follow it in his belly seems not to have occurred to him).  Barry’s evident ultra-conservative politics find an incendiary outlet in the fanatical siege mentality of jihadism, and his ludicrous plot to bomb a mosque in order to spark an Islamic counter-revolution suggests that those politics were once (and perhaps are still) essentially Islamophobic and anti-Semitic in nature.

Not that Omar himself is any sort of logistical mastermind, though compared to his bumbling comrades he’s practically Khalid Sheikk Mohammed. He communicates with his co-conspirators on a cutesy social networking site called Puffin Party (“His puffin won’t talk to my puffin,” he laments after an intra-cell tiff sunders the group for a time) and, while at a remote training camp in Pakistan, he points an anti-aircraft bazooka the wrong way when trying to take down a drone and accidentally blows up a meeting of al-Qaeda grandees. He also seems oddly nonplussed about abandoning his devoted wife and young child for the martyr’s paradise, even justifying his mistake in Pakistan to his boy via a convoluted but sweet-natured retelling of The Lion King in which Simba accidentally kills Mufasa and must lie about it in order to take down the villainous Scar.

This moment (invoking lions like the title, itself a reference to the heraldic emblem of England) cuts to the heart of the fundamentalist mindset: the elemental moral cause of vanquishing perceived evils is what matters most, and any dissembling or fabricating or violent conduct involved in achieving that goal is justified by the righteousness of the cause. This same general concept is summarized beautifully by Barry: “You can’t win an argument just by being right.” Morris’ response to the reckless, ignorant hate of this kind of fundamentalism is to mock it, and it’s hard to argue that it’s an unfair response.

This is not to say that Morris’ satire is focused like a tracer merely on the target of lunkheaded jihadism. Omar’s supercilious brother, a conservative, non-violent Muslim who attends a Qu’ran prayer group with others from his mosque while their hijab-ed wives drink tea in a closet, provides a mild reproach to the adherents of the faith whose means are more moderate and pacifist but still cling to outdated, draconian practices and gender roles.

A much larger target for the film’s satirical ire is the law enforcement and national security state apparatus that is responding to the threat of Islamist terror with all the indiscriminate blunt force one can expect from a massive military-bureaucratic institution. The vast shadowy government forces that Barry suspects to be so omniscient are only slightly less inept than Omar and his band of Keystone Cop-style terrorists. As Omar’s cell finalizes the plan for its parting blaze of glory (during the London Marathon, dressed in big fuzzy costumes), the police are wholly oblivious, mistakenly raiding his brother’s prayer meeting instead.

This error is small potatoes compared to the authorities’ handling of the Marathon plot. Rooftop snipers are ordered to bring down a perp in a bear suit, but take out a runner in a Chewbacca costume instead, leading to a side-splitting self-justifying exchange between the two snipers and command (“Is a Wookie a bear, Control?”). Waj’s impromptu hostage-taking in a kebab shop is also bungled badly, first by the aforementioned hostage negotiator (you know you’re watching a great film when such a small cameo role is filled by someone as awesome as Benedict Cumberbatch), who tries unsuccessfully to establish a rapport with Waj by going on about how he bets that he’s “a massive arse man”, and then by the SWAT team, who shoot the Arabic kebab cook hostage instead of Waj.

With all this in mind, it’s clear that the message of Four Lions, or one of its main messages anyway, is that human frailty (under which stupidity is very much included) is more of a constant than unswerving self-control, and that ideological rigidity proceeds much more commonly from the former than from the latter. The film also suggests that jihadism is as prone to hypocrisy and pretention as any other ideological subculture. The “lions”, with their laptops, mobiles, singalongs to “Dancing in the Moonlight”, and myriad other engagements with democratic capitalism, are much more prone to extremist violence than the more devout and backwards-looking Muslims that we meet. And, finally, it’s a film with the courage of its own convictions. Comedy or not (and it definitely is a comedy, and a historically funny one at that), there are no happy endings here. Omar wants to be remembered with a smile on his face, and so does Four Lions. But what really makes them memorable is something much more explosive than a simple smile.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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