directed by Christopher Morris
2010, 97 mins., rated R
The idea of "Four Lions," a comedy about Islamic suicide bombers in the West, seems rather offensive. But the same could have been said for Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful," the Italian comedy set in Hitler's death camps. Both films took horrific subject matter and, using humor, brought important themes and ideas to wider audiences than the scores of dramas and documentaries that came before. For Benigni, the theme was the irrepressibility of the human spirit; for Morris, it is the root cause of extremist terror.
It's fitting that "Four Lions" hails from the UK - and not only because that country's film industry is less reluctant to take cinematic risks than our own. America's 9/11 was an attack from abroad. For the British, their first brush with this kind of terrorism was homegrown, 7/7 - the July 7, 2005, bombing of public transit was carried out by UK residents.
Americans have been prompted to fear terrorists from somewhere, but we haven't begun the same sort of soul-searching the British have, about why people born and raised in a Western society would kill themselves and others for "jihad."
The comedy genre may seem an odd place for a discussion of terrorism. But, as Britain increasingly turns its attention away from its crumbling monarchy and social rigidity, it makes sense that their comedy turns to questioning more modern threats.
"Four Lions" chronicles the stories of four would-be suicide bombers, born in the UK, desperate to martyr themselves.
This entertaining film dramatizes a view rapidly gaining ground, which has been espoused by people like the Marxist BBC Radio 4 presenter Kenan Malik in his "From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Aftermath." Malik says that terrorism in the Islamic world represents the last dying gasp of political Islam. In the West, he argues, it is linked to the effects of racism, sterile official multiculturalism, identity politics and an atomized society, which have led some young people to find their place in a type of Islam that bears no relation to that of their parents, or, indeed, any traditional Islam at all.
While one would expect a comedy about Islamic suicide bombers to fall into the trap of base caricature and stereotyping, "Four Lions" does the opposite. The group of "Islamists" isn't very "Islamic" at all. In fact, they seem as if they would be equally at home identifying themselves as a group of football hooligans or punk rockers, particularly obvious in a scene in which they argue over who's the most loyal. ("I'm more al-Qaeda than anyone!" says one.) The ringleader mocks his traditionalist brother, who eschews terror and "spends too much time at the mosque." None of the group actually attends services, or prays. In fact, they thoroughly debate whether it might be a good idea to blow up an Islamic center. ("We'll blame it on the kaffirs!") A trip made by two to Pakistan also shows an extreme divergence between political Islamists there and the film's anti-heroes.
The film's production values are good, as are the acting and scripting. While it most definitely falls into the British comedy genre, there are some particularly unsettling moments that wouldn't fit anywhere in "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Scenes portraying the authorities' surveillance of the group are chilling. Further, some moments spark outrage. Saying much more would be akin to that most hated mistake of movie reviewers, the spoiler. Suffice it to say that the film makes a strong point regarding the misguided, some would say chauvinistic, tendencies of the security agencies.
Marketed as a laugh-filled romp, the movie offers much more. But "Four Lions" won't disappoint those looking for just a bit of humor, either. And it carries a subtle progressive message: there is no "alien" culture seeking to destroy our society from within; rather, our own society's rot is the problem.