In British humorist Chris Morris’ debut film, he has set out to answer the question, “Why is this happening?” in reply to the July 7, 2005, attacks throughout London. It’s a question so loaded and complicated that a 97-minute farce doesn’t have a shot at answering it, but the endeavor is not fruitless.
Four Lions follows the lives of five Islamic extremists around the suburbs of England as they plan Jihad after work. The group of would-be mujahedeen includes Omar (Riz Ahmed), who is the leader by default as he is the only one with a brain, the dimwitted Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) and the very dimwitted Waj (Kayvan Novak).
In an emotional tizzy over not being allowed to join Omar and Waj in Pakistan to train, Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the very white Curly Howard of the group, takes over planning the jihad with Fessal, going so far as to recruit a new member, Hassan (Arsher Ali). Young, wealthy and English-born, Barry would be in way over his head if he thought it was any more real than playing G.I. Joe. But it seems impossible to think this bumbling bunch of misfits could ever actually pull anything off besides accidentally exploding themselves.
And this is actually the point of the film. We’ve seen the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber and laughed at the silly ways they’ve tried to sneak explosives onto planes, but we’ve only been able to do so because they are so inept. The explosives they carried were as real as any used in the daily car bombings in Afghanistan. The scary thought is that even the last kid chosen for a pick-up game hits a jump shot once in a while, if only by blind accident.
In his attempt to answer “why?” Morris creates even more questions. Omar, Waj, Barry, Fessal and Hassan are not the only bumbling fools here. Their plans are made in broad daylight right under their English friends’ noses, none of whom seem alarmed by five Muslim men running through the streets nervously gripping large packages, or notice the detonators on the coffee table when they pop over for a visit.
Is it insightful? Yes and no. The curtain is pulled back, if only slightly, on the extremes that Muslim men are pushed to by a host of religious, political and cultural issues, and they are exposed with a deeply cutting wit – it really is one of the funniest films you’ll see all year – but it’s exposed by an outsider. How many European directors have we seen botch American war films because they are outsiders? It has to give the viewer pause.
But does it matter? Perhaps my middle-class, white, Catholic upbringing is showing here, but the film left me with a slightly empty feeling that all Morris has accomplished is getting me to split my sides in the face of something wholly terrifying, and that’s OK – even necessary – for now. But laughing in the face of people who reply with bombs stops being OK when the next printer cartridge slips unseen through security.