Four Lions is a comedy about terrorism. That fact alone is going to be more than enough to offend some people who will shout “terrorism isn’t funny.” I understand where this attitude comes from, but let’s not forget that making fun of dark realities has been prevalent not only throughout the history of cinema but also in comedies through the ages. Nazi’s were effectively made light of in movies like The Great Dictator and To Be or Not to Be, nuclear warfare was satirized excellently by Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and racism has been effectively ridiculed by numerous standup comedians including Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. None of those subjects are “funny,” but there’s plenty of room for ridicule and satire in all of the subjects as long as the people making it know what they’re doing. Of course just because you can make a comedy about a subject without it being offensive does not necessarily make it funny.
The film follows a group of English Muslims who have formed a jihadist cell bent on performing a suicide bombing of some sort. The catch is that these terrorists are more like the shoe bomber than Osama bin Laden; they’re a bunch of bumbling fools playing with fire. The most sensible of the four seems to be Omar (Riz Ahmed) who acts as a straight man of sorts to the fools he’s surrounded by. The most extreme of the group, Barry (Nigel Lindsay), isn’t even a Muslim by birth; a fact that hasn’t stopped him from publicly spouting off about the supposed tyranny of the western world. The other two, Waj (Kayvan Novak) and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), follow along with the groups scheming to some degree. A fifth person eventually emerges in the form of Hassan (Arsher Ali), a disaffected youth who’s talked into actually participating in “the cause” rather than simply making statements.
The movie that Four Lions is widely being compared to (perhaps unfairly) is last year’s brilliant British political satire In the Loop. To say the least, I went into Four Lions with pretty high expectations because of this and I can’t say they were really met. The concept of In the Loop was far less audacious than Four Lions, but it had the major benefit of being made by people who are really really funny. The comedy in Four Lions on the other hand, not so much. I’ll say right up front that my disinterest in the comedy here has nothing to do with it being “edgy,” I just don’t think the jokes were all that good. I feel like part of this is that the actors were casted more because they looked like terrorists than because they were great comedic talents. Nigel Lindsay and Arsher Ali were the only ones here that really seemed like they belonged in a comedy.
The movie also suffered from the team behind the camera, this is clearly not a film made by confident filmmakers. The film uses the all too common unacknowledged mockumentary format as its visual style to no effect. This feels less like a genuine stylistic decision and more like a tool to conceal the movie’s low budget, and it genuinely makes the whole thing feel amateurish. I know that visuals aren’t really supposed to be the focus of something like this, but having minimal technical prowess certainly doesn’t help. It might have been less of an issue if the script stood on its own better, but this doesn’t really. There is a decently absurdist image late in the movie that would seem funny in theory, but the filmmakers sort of botch the gag because they don’t really have the right timing when they reveal it.
The movie also doesn’t work particularly well as satire, we do get a somewhat unique look into the stupidity of domestic terrorists, but the film never really fully explores these guys. The glance into their world is largely superficial, and at times their bumbling feels less like the real failures of dumb “radicals” and more like dopey physical comedy. Once again this movie just doesn’t exploit a really brilliant and ballsy premise. That’s the thing, courage can get you so far and at the end of the day you also have to be funny, and in the grand scheme of things I don’t think the people who made this are world class comedians.
** out of Four