As always, with the winter season comes the usual glut of suicide bomber comedies, and now British satirist Chris Morris is getting in on the act. Morris is best known for his TV work in the '90s, The Day Today and Brass Eye, absurdist parodies of the news media that today look less absurd and more eerily prescient. He's never been afraid to take on the controversial subjects, and a wacky farce about terrorism certainly falls under that category.
Four Lions follows a group of British Muslims planning a suicide bombing but undone at every step by their own stupidity and incompetence. It sounds like a premise that would make for uncomfortable viewing, but it's surprisingly easy going. Suicide bombers may not be the most traditional source of laughs, but the comedy of idiocy is about as old school as it gets, and here Morris shows a complete mastery of it. The protagonists are all total buffoons (the smartest character in the film by far at one point fires a rocket launcher backwards by mistake) and there's something reassuring about their stupidity, turning what is scary and alien into something laughable and familiar.
Suicide bombers are difficult to portray in fiction because the passions that drive them are so foreign to us it can seem impossible to get inside their head and understand where they're coming from. Four Lions creates some very relatable characters with all too familiar drives and motivations, but the price for that is that it's often difficult to believe these men are actually suicide bombers. Indeed for much of the film the terrorist elements seem to be mere surface trappings, good for a few shock laughs early on and to give the film a unique premise that would make it stand out. At it's core it's very much a traditional genre piece, the classic heist set-up where a bunch of small time dreamers with criminal ideas above their station plot a sure to fail scheme.
But the big difference is that while in those films the characters hope the big score is going to improve their lives and generally think they can get away clean without hurting anyone, in Four Lions the characters are looking for a big score to end their lives, and hurting people is the point. It's hard to believe these incredibly stupid but essentially endearing bumblers actually want to kill innocent people, particularly their extremely likable and level-headed leader(think Tim from the English office as a terrorist), who doesn't seem like he'd hurt a fly. Scenes like the one in which his loving and supportive family tell him not to be disheartened and give up on his dream of blowing himself up get laughs out of the disconnect, but make it seem like the reality of the film itself is a joke; that we're meant to know that although these characters say they're suicide bombers, they're not really.
However, in the final third the gap between who these characters are and what they're aiming to do comes to the fore, and the film really gets to grips with the darkness inherent in it's premise. The laughs become more brutal, and it also turns unexpectedly sad and heartfelt. It would been easy for Morris to cop out and try for a happy ending, but he's not one to pull his punches, and he follows things through to their inevitable grim conclusion.
It's difficult to take seriously the argument, put forth by some, that this is an important political film or one with a serious message that needs to be heard. In terms of satirical targets, it's not really a huge provocation to take on suicide bombing, I doubt many will take issue with the film's ultimate conclusion that it's not a good thing to do. It's portrayal of Muslims is a somewhat double edged sword, simultaneously carrying the positive message that they're just like us while also kind of implying that even the most westernized, ordinary seeming ones could secretly be suicide bombers. It's irrelevant anyway, as the people burning Korans and protesting mosques are not the target audience for this film, and I don't see it having a huge amount of crossover potential. What matters is whether the film works as a comedy, and it's one of the funniest you'll likely see all year.
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