Thursday, December 30, 2010

Four Lions

FOUR LIONS (Chris Morris, 2010)

Comedies don’t get any nervier than director Chris Morris’s FOUR LIONS, which is built on the exploits of bumbling Islamic terrorists in a cell near London. By all appearances the group’s levelheaded leader Omar (Riz Ahmed) wouldn’t be involved with such a bunch. He has a comfortable middle class life with a loving wife and admiring son, yet there he is telling a bedtime story attempting to recast THE LION KING as a tale of jihad and groaning over the numerous outtakes from videos supposed to present them as fearsome ideological warriors.

Omar and the easily malleable Waj (Kayvan Novak) depart England for a training camp in Pakistan, but they make a hasty return home after demonstrating their ineptitude with artillery. During their absence, Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a blowhard incapable of keeping a low profile, meets a kindred spirit in Hassan (Arsher Ali), who tries to make a point about prejudice toward Muslims by pretending to be strapped with explosives at an Islamic relations panel. Barry invites Hassan to join him and the sheepish Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) in plotting some kind of attack.

The desire to put belief into action becomes more urgent when Omar and Waj reconnect with the others. They just need to determine the proper target, and no, it won’t be the mosque, no matter how much Barry insists that blowing it up will inflame their spiritual brothers to fight the heathens.

FOUR LIONS is merciless in its mission to find humor where few would dare seek it. Morris and co-writers Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, and Simon Blackwell present these modern boogeymen as buffoons and hold them up to ridicule for their vanity and tortured logic. The film’s point is neatly summarized in the scene with Omar contorting himself to convince his confused accomplice Waj that killing innocent civilians and themselves to promote their cause is a good thing that he wants to do. From an outside perspective, such talk would sound clearly insane, and it’s not simply because individual bombers in the group are dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and a guy riding an ostrich. In letting the characters accept such philosophical views as wise and noble, Morris and company highlight the absurdity of these positions to devastating comedic ends.

It may not seem very risky for the filmmakers to take potshots at terrorists. Who’s going to object? In FOUR LIONS the courage comes in putting front and center the disquieting notion that terrorism is as simple as any group of fools with the ability and desire to assemble and detonate rudimentary bombs. It’s easy enough to find the hilarity in those who would do us harm hurting themselves. It’s something quite different to be reminded that militaries and intelligence agencies aren’t necessarily fighting brilliant or deeply pocketed opponents. FOUR LIONS allows the audience to laugh at these dimwits, which has enormous cathartic power, yet in not sparing the deadly consequences of their beliefs and actions, the film adds an extra layer of resonance regarding what’s at stake in this clash of worldviews.

Boldness in and of itself in a comedy doesn’t mean the material is actually humorous; however, FOUR LIONS is packed with razor-sharp wordplay and glorious slapstick that make it an explosively funny and unsettling film.

Grade: A

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