Four Lions (2010)

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.

Above the Line: Practical movie reviews with Rory DeanThe 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.

About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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4 Responses to Four Lions (2010)

  1. Rodney says:

    I have to say, I find the thought of a slap-stick comedy based around suicide bombers a little unpalatable, but the poster for the film (with a gazillion “FUNNY” to state the obvious) had me at hello.

    I might have to watch this when I’m in a mood for something quirky: I don’t think the wife would let me rent this at full cost, so it might be a weekly hire in a few months….

    As usual, great review Rory!

    • rorydean says:

      You’re not alone! This film was recommended to me and I’m glad I saw it. I think as a filmmaker, enthusiast and critic I was able to explore the film from a different perspective than say your average moviegoer. That’s not to say I was not challenged by the premise – I mean a comedy about suicide bombers? But Four Lions should properly be billed as a satire which gives much more credence to the filmmakers and the film. Yes, quirky to say the least. Have a pint just before, during and after and let me know what you think ->

  2. Simon says:

    it is a great film! I don’t think it got as much negative press as people thought. Thats a good sign. Inevitably you’ll always get a little controversy around the subject matter – and at some points it was close (I think families of 7/7 victims were against the release) but it didn’t get pulled from cinemas!

    Yeah, a great film!

    • rorydean says:

      Hey Simon — Yeah, there are so many things that go into a film that’s amazing how far a little bad press will go to shelve an otherwise good film. Not sure I’d go so far as say it was ‘great’ but still a good film about an outwardly challenging subject. Parodies, satires and ‘message’ films in general walk a pretty small tight rope for me and either go too far (Inglorious Basterds) or skitter along the surface (I Love You Phillip Morris) and the result is thinking, there’s always something else to rent/buy/watch.


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