Islamic Jihadists plotting to blow themselves up, and in due course succeeding to take innocent bystanders with them seems hardly palatable material for a comedy. Yet, with satirical plotting and witty, often hilarious slap-stick scenarios, British TV writer-director Chris Morris’ 2010 film Four Lions is decisively engaging. Yet how does one wrap their mind around humorous mass terror plots and dimwitted would-be assassins in the wake of 9/11 America without immediately feeling skeptical? Roger Ebert called Four Lions transgressive, while others have labeled Morris’ first feature as ‘brazenly distasteful’ yet in the face of his detractors, this appears to be the exact reaction he’s looking for. Four Lions is not supercilious nor does it take itself entirely too serious. Comparisons have been drawn to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and other black comedies though in this case Morris might better be labeled a dissident, a master subversive who weaves the very fabric of his black comedy with an opportunity to change your perceptions while laughing at them. Social commentary in sheep’s clothing, no pun intended for those who have watched the film, Four Lions really only scratches the surface of ideology and perceptions in the way in which we judge and are judged and how frequently we get it wrong.
The film chronicles the last days of a group of wanna-be suicide bombers who decide after much consternation and bungled planning, to carry out a suicide mission they have no clear idea how to orchestrate. After a series of mishaps and near catastrophes, one involving a sheep and a hapless bomber, they decide to make bombs and while disguised under silly clown suits, join a London marathon where they plan to blow themselves and others up. It is never made clear who these characters really are. All that we know for sure is that their leader, Omar is the most developed and for all intent purposes a ‘normal’ person. His home life includes a beautiful wife and young son and only a hint of sinister plotting when we find him reviewing video footage on a laptop in his ‘normal’ looking house. The video footage is of his mates fumbling through trying to record one of those video testaments that suicide bombers make before carrying out their mission. The trouble with the plan is evident from the start as the film begins with every imaginable stumble, curse, and misfortune as the group changes gears so fast it’s nearly impossible to keep up. Even after a trip to Pakistan to enlist in a terror training camp goes awry, we know nothing is as it seems and that is exactly what Morris wants to convey.
The characters are carefully shaded, their conversations swift yet a bit thick at times, a mixture of dialects and pop culture jargon only adds to the oddly contemporary quality of the inept group. The bombers are led by Omar, clearly the brains of the outfit who also happens to be a security guard. He struggles at every turn with Barry, an overly irate Caucasian convert with his own ideas of action, Faisal who is only slightly more incompetent than the dopey Waj who literally spends the entire movie bumping into everyone while following them blindly.
Praised as much as ridiculed as needlessly dark and violent with characters that might as easily be drawn from Western imperialism as Islamic extremism, Chris Morris sets out to deliver a message that is both meaningful and curious. Beneath the outward silliness is a clear commentary about misguided cultural differences and stereotypes that are perpetrated all over the world. Morris disarms us as easily as anything from Matt Groening (The Simpsons) or Matt Stone and Tray Parker of Southpark with their crudely constructed but deeply satirical eye on everything from organized religion to social morays as seen through the eyes of misguided children in one large toilet room nestled in a titular Colorado town. Perhaps what makes Morris stand out is the subject itself or maybe our own disquiet of it. Yet he makes no apologies, depicting either side of the story as witless, erasing the boundaries between good and bad and the tendency, having exhausted all rational thought, to succumb to shortcomings most everyone can relate. We might not know these characters but surely we can relate to them. If all this sounds frighteningly off kilter and unrealistic, the special features on the DVD show us that the filmmaker actually did a considerable amount of research for the script penned by Jesse Armstrong (In The Loop) and television writers Sam Bain and Simon Blackwell with Morris and Blackwell credited as ‘additional writing’.
Few will argue that Morris operates dangerously close to uncomfortable, fueled as much by nervousness and ignorance as the brutality of death by ideology. It is only in this ploy to undermine the seriousness of terrorism is Morris the most successful at global social commentary. He coaxes us with silly, at times hyper-stylized scenarios that give us permission to laugh at absurdity. Some audiences will let their guard down and welcome the chance to embrace the improbable storyline to see another view of would-be bombers who are as ridiculous as the notion that there only exists one way for anyone with differing views to approach the subject of fundamentalist extremism – Morris makes us laugh and perhaps it is only after the movie ends that we begin to piece together just what it was that he was trying to tell us about ourselves as well as radicalism from any continent. The cops and robbers bungle every opportunity to behave properly often at the cost of their own sense of societal responsibilities. Sure, the material is weighty but that is exactly what it is supposed to be.