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Who says we have to take terrorism seriously? Sure, our leaders may consider Islamic extremism an existential threat and most of our movies and television shows on the topic star beard-stroking masterminds and their inevitable run-ins with CIA operatives. But perhaps sinister plots to wreak chaos in the name of the Almighty aren’t always borne by vast networks of bad guys that can only brought down by a Jack Bauer-type. Terrorists—to paraphrase George Carlin—could be like any other group of people: a few winners and a whole lot of losers.
In director Chris Morris’ new black-hearted terrorism satire Four Lions, which opens today at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, the would-be bombers are at least as—if not more—stupid than they are dangerous. Set in an unnamed British satellite city, Morris presents a circle of disaffected Muslim twenty-something men whose chief motivation to commit nefarious acts of destruction is a combination of boredom and listlessness rather than outright feelings of jihad, or at least a little injustice. Even Omar (Riz Ahmed), the putative cell leader and only mature member of the group, maintains a day job and goes home in the evening to his wife and young son in a seemingly pleasant suburb.
Four Lions never supplies the specific reason Omar and company are plotting their holy war. We pick up after the plan has been hatched with Omar and his collaborators Waj (Kayvan Novak), Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) and Barry (Nigel Lindsay) record the video confessionals that are often found in raids of terrorist camps but are filled with content that wouldn’t seem out of place on a personal YouTube account filled with pop-culture commentary. Is Johnny Depp that good-looking? Is The Lion King a metaphor for the Koran? That’s about as deeply as these guys believe.
Except for Barry, that is. As the convert he is the most extreme, even pushing to bomb a local mosque in hopes of creating more radicals. In his fanaticism, Barry is the type who participates in public roundtables on the rise of Muslims as a segment of the English population in hopes of finding new recruits, which he does in the form of Hassan (Arsher Ali), who could easily be mistaken for Ali G’s feeble-minded cousin. Barry also insists that the best way to hide evidence is to make it a meal, swallowing both a SIM card and a car key in the first 10 minutes.
Morris honed his knack for making light of serious topics on his satirical news programs Brass Eye and The Day Today, which bludgeoned late-1990s societal concerns with absurdity far beyond Stephen Colbert in his rarest form. But stylistically, Four Lions is much closer to last year’s In the Loop, the farce of Anglo-American diplomacy directed by Morris’ old collaborator Armando Ianucci.
But in spoofing terrorism, Morris also draws heavy influence from great slapstick comedy. When Omar and Waj make a brief trip to a Pakistan training ground for aspiring suicide bombers, their first attempt with a rocket launcher is met with Abbott & Costello-like results. And several characters’ untimely demises make riotous punchlines out of the stark horror of Four Lions’ subject matter.
Like Ianucci with In the Loop, Morris is jabbing at our sensibilities as much as he is at his characters. As hapless as his five aspiring holy warriors act, the various neighbors, coworkers and cops they encounter are blind to the most blatantly conspicuous terror plot ever concocted on film. The explosive finish goes from hilarity to real terror and back again. The results of successful terrorism are no laughing matter, but in Four Lions, the joke’s on everyone—especially the jihadists.