Anyone who watches writer and director Christopher Morris’ “Four Lions” would probably hesitate to call it a comedy.
Its subject matter is so serious and its humor so subtle, it would probably best be described as a pitch-black satire.
“Four Lions” follows four idealistic British jihadists, or suicide bombers, who are trying to plan the ultimate terrorist attack on the London suburb of Sheffield. The key phrase is that they “are trying,” because for various reasons they just can’t seem to get this whole terrorist thing right.
Omar, the group’s leader, a husband and the father of an impressionable young son, is leaving Sheffield with his mentally insufficient friend, Waj, to attend a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. It’s hard to believe that hilarity ensues, but moments like this are what make “Four Lions” so inspired.
After a brilliant comedy set-piece involving Omar’s attempt to destroy an American spy plane, but instead inadvertently demolishing their own terrorist camp, the two are sent literally running back to Sheffield. Barry, a Caucasian gentleman who has converted to the Islamic faith, suspects Omar and Waj failed their training and plans to overtake the group as the new leader.
It’s from this point that “Four Lions” really takes off and turns into a film that shouldn’t simply be pigeonholed because of its comedic elements. All of the jihadists in the terrorist group, Omar especially, are set up as fully multi-dimensional characters, rather than being used to simply dispense cheap gags for the sake of satirizing terrorism.
Barry’s vitriolic devotion to the Islamic faith shows how insecure he really is with the way he is viewed in the group. He believes that because he is the only one converted to Islam the others will believe he isn’t serious enough about being a jihadist.
Barry recruits the simple-minded Hassan, a young college student who disrupts a function Barry is attending with confetti bombs, believing he is young and reckless enough to make up for any misgivings Barry may have. Hassan continually proves to be another obstacle in their quest to do something that, to quote Omar, “echoes through the ages.”
The film’s supporting cast is also comprised of fully realized characters like Omar’s young son. It becomes increasingly more apparent that this young boy will someday follow in his fathers footsteps. When the entire family warmly embraces Omar after he tells them about the group’s plans to commit jihad, the film hits an eerie balance between satire and uncomfortable real life terror.
Most of the credit goes to Morris’ excellent screenplay and directing, which he’s honed on popular British television shows “The Day Today” and “Nathan Barley.” Though it’s only when Morris reaches for broader humor or when he attempts to force a critique of British homeland defense at the film’s conclusion, does “Four Lions” falter.
“Four Lions” recently garnered awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer. Nigel Lindsay, who plays Barry, accepted the award on Morris’ behalf.
“If it hadn’t been for him, the thing would have never got off the ground,” Lindsay told BAFTA Online. “How anyone can go up to somebody and say, ‘I want to make a comedy about suicide bombers’ and get the money for it is beyond me.”
This week, Magnolia Home Entertainment and Drafthouse Films released “Four Lions” on DVD and Blu-ray with some insightful extras that explore the film to a far greater degree.
One feature in particular, entitled “Background Material,” is a short documentary by producer Afi Khan detailing the lives of Muslims interviewed across England as research for the film.
While many critics have championed “Four Lions” for bravely taking aim at suicide bombers and terrorism in general, it’s the cast and crew of Morris’ film that deserves the most credit for making it a tasteful but wry satire.
When “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” director Edgar Wright created his list of “Top 10 Underrated or Underseen Movies of 2010” for film blog The Playlist, in which he called “Lions” a “ballsy satire that never wimps out,” he properly reflected the feelings that many had regarding the “ballsy” crew behind this film.
“If this was a bigger hit, I’d worry for the safety of its makers,” Wright said.