Why Haven’t You Watched…FOUR LIONS?


‘Why haven’t you watched…?’ is a column where we extoll the virtues of a movie or TV show. They may be old or new, they may be US-made or foreign. The only constant will be their awesomeness and that by watching them you will enrich your life, appear cooler to your friends, and more attractive to the opposite sex.

If you’re a reader of the site, an Austinite, or a person with any sense of good taste, you’ll be aware of Drafthouse Films, the distribution offshoot of the esteemed Alamo Drafthouse. You may be less aware of how a company, which in the past few years has released some magnificent new fare such as Cheap Thrills and Mood Indigo and re-released underappreciated fare like Miami Connection and Roar as well as festival and awards favorites such as Bullhead and The Act of Killing, launched with an appropriately bold, incisive, and hilarious piece of satire that was not being picked up for the US market. That film is my Pick of the Week: Four Lions.

The film opens with a somewhat familiar sight on news stations these days, a Muslim male, clutching a gun, speaking into the camera about the evils of the West. While obviously disconcerting, there’s something “off” about the scene. Soon a discussion begins between the man in front of and behind the camera discussing the size of the (prop) gun being used, the scene ending with the line, “It’s not too small brother. That’s just me hands. Big hands, brother. I’ll bigger it. I’ll hold it nearer the camera that’ll bigger it.” This scene sets the tone for the film: disconcerting, then punctuated by a satirical spin.

Four Lions tells of a group of disillusioned British Muslims who decide they want to play their part in the jihad against the West. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is a mujahid, dedicated to his cause as well as his devoted wife and child. Alongside him is his brother Waj (Kayvan Novak), who is more occupied with fried chicken and water parks than terrorism; a white Muslim-convert called Barry (Nigel Lindsay) who believes bombing a Mosque could help rally the moderate Muslims to their cause; Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), a sweet-natured type who has aspirations to create an army of bomb-laden crows; and Hassan (Arsher Ali), a young boy who seems to have leaped on the jihadist-bandwagon because it’s the trendy thing to do.

All living in Sheffield, a city in the North of England, each is drawn into the group for a variety of reasons; their efforts to organize repeatedly meet with failure and farce. Underterred, they continue in their efforts, and after returning from a (catastrophic) trip to a training camp in Pakistan, Omar takes command of the group and charges them with bombing the London marathon.

Four Lions is the work of Chris Morris, alongside Armando Iannucci and Charlie Brooker, one of the smartest, most insightful writers the UK has right now. Iannucci is best known for his current show VEEP on HBO and the astonishingly good film In the Loop, which offers a hilarious look at the behind-the-scenes politics of an Iraq-type war. Brooker has garnered massive praise for his dystopic critique of our growing dependence on technology with the incredible and hard hitting Black Mirror.

His prior TV work, with contributions from both Iannucci and Brooker, has been pushing the boundaries of comedy and social commentary for decades. The Day Today was a creation designed to puncture the ridiculousness of news reporting, their slogan “Fact times importance equals news!” telling you much about the comedy approach. His latter work in the 90s was Brass Eye, a lightning rod for praise and complaint alike that spoofed the current affairs type of programming so prevalent then. Showcasing a sensational approach (see FOX News) to explore social issues in the UK including topics such as drugs, AIDS (the good kind vs. the bad), and a astonishing look at the threat of pedophilia. With this pedigree, Morris, notorious for tackling controversial issues head on, was the perfect person -along with co-writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (who co-wrote In the Loop and Peep Show) — to put a spin on terrorism.

Four Lions was not intended as a deliberate provocation, but is actually the result of Morris immersing himself in the reasons for the current spate of terrorism as well as the history of Islam. In his own words…

It was an attempt to figure it out, to ask, “What’s going on with this?” This is something that’s commanding so much of our lives, shaping so much of our culture, turning this massive political wheel. I was wondering what this new game was all about. But then 7/7 hit that with a fairly large impact, in that we were suddenly seeing all these guys with a Hovis accent. Suddenly you’re not dealing with an amorphous Arab world so much as with British people who have been here quite a long time and who make curry and are a part of the landscape. So you’ve got a double excavation going on.

He talked to Islamic extremists, common British Muslims, security experts, and more to improve his understanding and found that while the media was preoccupied with the handful of successful attacks, the most common tales were ones of failure. For every 9/11 there are several failed shoe bombers. MI5 has evidence, recordings showing off the mundane reality of these terrorist training camps, where members will talk over matters of pop culture or groups descend into something resembling a frat house. With the realization that those involved are for the most part just like us, Four Lions began to take shape.

A topic still sensitive today, let alone back in 2010, Four Lions bravely put a satirical spin on the terrorist threat instilling fear around the globe. It’s a deeply charged topic, especially in America, explaining the reluctance of many distribution companies to pick up the release. It’s also a testament to the film that this isn’t the first time it’s been a Pick of the Week here at Cinapse.

The focus is on the men who make up this “cell,” presenting them as well rounded people better than any other film dealing with this subject matter. These are just people for the most part, each with their own flaws, offering up on some level something we can each connect with. You can’t write off these men as “crazy,” or good vs. bad; it’s WAY more complicated than that. Four Lions is adept at showing how each of the four main characters fall into line as part of the cell, be it though ill conceived duty, persecution, utter stupidity, or sibling loyalty. Each have their own laughable ideas about how terrorism and counter-terrorism actually work, which is the source of much of the dark comedy in the film.

The belief that shaking the face quickly blurs the image so security cameras cannot capture you and the (predictable but effective) mishandling of a rocket launcher are the more obvious moments, but the script delivers some other great moments as well as characters. Barry and his belief that there is a Jewish conspiracy to control traffic around the world by their invention of spark-plugs is one example. In a way the film works as positive propaganda, reassuring the masses that most of these “terrorists” likely pose no credible threat at all.

As with all good satires, no one is exempt from mockery. While the focus is obviously on our cabal of jihadists, the authorities looking into terrorist activity are show in a equally inept light. In one instance they’re invading the home of the wrong Muslim due to bad intelligence, and later in one of the film’s highlights trying to take out one of the four terrorists in fancy dress at the marathon. While knowing one is dressed as the Honey Monster, confusion occurs and a hapless Wookie is taken down instead.

The film doesn’t simply lampoon terrorism but instead shows the reality of it, undercutting the exaggerated fear that has been and continues to be thrown at us. It is founded on a simple premise, that not all those involved in terrorism are ruthless, trained, and fearless warriors; many are pretty regular people, some are more than a little clueless, and in some cases they’re straight up dumb.

Perhaps the most successful aspect of the film is how unsettled it leaves you when faced with the reality of Omar’s life. This is not some downtrodden religious fanatic, this is a grounded, intelligent man with plenty to live for, he has just chosen not to. He’s against material acquisition, but ironically works as a security guard in a shopping mall. His wife and son seem to be proud of his impending martyrdom, the latter being hilariously educated in his intent through using The Lion King as a metaphor to explain a jihad.

Again it reinforces that these aren’t some put upon folks in the Middle East, these are people who were raised with the benefits of western civilization but still choose this path. Interestingly one of the group is actually a white British Muslim convert, whose ideas for how to strike are usually the most violent. Again, this avoids portraying Muslim as the enemy, focusing more how the perversion of any ideal can be used by a agent of hate. It may be uncomfortable for some seeing a film exploring this topic in a comedic sense, perhaps thinking it is trivializing it, but this is a subject that needs discussions and dissection, and in the history of cinema it is often comedy that breaks down that boundary first. And that’s what Four Lions ultimately is, a very insightful piece of work, hysterical in parts but tinged with a sad resignation about the hate within some of us or the inevitable tragedy that befalls others.

Four Lions doesn’t seek to belittle or make terrorism less scary, but instead to re-frame our understanding of the mindset and the reality of how much of the misguided hate in the world is doomed to failure. In Dr. Strangelove, despite the laughs, that bomb still falls from the sky at the end; similarly, in Four Lions you’re left with a bang and an uneasy chill.

Good satire should always land an emotional punch as well as a good punchline, and Chris Morris delivers both here. A superb, smart comedy coupled to some incredibly sharp social commentary guaranteed to make you think as much as you’ll laugh.

Rubber dinghy rapids bro.

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