Every so often, it becomes artistically necessary for someone to come along and combine a serious political issue with The Three Stooges. In lesser hands, it can be an offensive disaster, but fortunately it was director Christopher Morris that answered the call from fate this time. With Four Lions he attempts to bring a sense of levity to terrorism – specifically the brand of terrorism that the news cycle has brought to the forefront of our psyche within the past decade: Islamic extremism. Jihadism. The Mujahideen.
This might be the most dangerous territory to go mining for comedy, but Morris does it the right way – by finding the comedy first, cleaning off the political mess, and delivering it dead pan to the audience.
Omar (Riz Ahmed) and his moronic mate Waj (Kayvan Novak) head to Pakistan to train with Al Qaeda so that they can take their small band of terrorists in Britain to the next level and achieve the grand goal of blowing themselves up constructively.
The temptation to head onto shaky political ground is a great one, but in a way, the backdrop of Islamic extremist terrorism acts the same way that any large event would act as the backdrop for comedy. It acts the same way as a heist acts in Ocean’s Eleven; the same way finding a friend and figuring out the night’s events acts in The Hangover; the same way not getting kicked out of college acts in Animal House. The humor comes from an important goal and the team’s hilarious, bumbling inability to succeed at even the easiest of tasks involved in achieving that goal.
From avoiding spy cameras that aren’t there to making threatening videos, the four attack each situation with the expertise of Michael Scott running The Office.
The humor ranges from dry and awkward to a grown man running around with a bomb strapped to him in a Ninja Turtle Costume.
Clearly, it’s impossible to divorce the comedy from its subject matter completely which is actually another strong selling point for the film. Even though it avoids getting political at every turn, it’s still a challenging film in a way – mostly because of how innocent it all feels. I found myself laughing at things that I would have never guessed could be funny, and those elements are jarring. During the film, they don’t seem challenging at all. It seems like the most natural thing to laugh at what is clearly recognizable as slapstick. However, in thinking about the effect of the film as the credits run – and especially after the direction the film takes – something amazing has happened. Four Lions made me laugh at things that just absolutely shouldn’t be funny.
For those who want to find a message, they will. For those that want to laugh, they will. This comedy is well-executed with a brilliant directorial vision and a strong cast featuring Riz Ahmed (who is endlessly charismatic), Kayvan Novak (who plays dumb with the best of them), Nigel Lindsay (as the hot head of the group that comes off like a white Supremacist, Islamic version of Farva), and Adeel Akhtar (who barely talks but steals scenes when he does).
Over all, the movie works because it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious. It walks that fine line through the minefield of taking a touchy subject matter and putting it in a clown suit. It’s a dangerous thing to do, but since the film makes it through the minefield, the result at the end is something absolutely fantastic.
The Upside: Hilarious comedy that works consistently, coming from an unexpected source, great performances and steady directing.
The Downside: It should have been a Donatello costume.
On the Side: Director Chris Morris was also featured on The IT Crowd.
Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared as part of our SXSW 2010 coverage