Four Lions is a British dark comedy released in 2011. It follows the story of four (later five) Jihadist terrorists living in England trying to plan a masterful terrorist attack in order to pursue their misguided aims of Jihad. Unfortunately for them (and fortunately for England) these terrorists are completely inept in their planning as they bumble their way from plot to plot. Four Lions is a sharp edged and hilarious satire about the current state of our affairs with terrorism and how the problem has propagated.
Let me start out by saying that I really loved this film. This is of course difficult subject matter to tackle and I found that the darkly humorous tone of the movie really worked for its advantage. In my opinion, this is Dr. Strangelove for our generation. Dr. Strangelove is a product of the mid 1960’s arm race and the fears about nuclear holocaust. Although it is still very funny to modern viewers, we are somewhat disconnected from it simply because nuclear Armageddon is no longer as big a concern. Four Lions takes the same route of delivering a sharp satire, only this time we are looking at Islamic terrorism, and not nuclear bombs.
The hardest part about making a movie like this is making both sides equally likable but also equally at fault for the current state of affairs. Four Lions does not want to pick sides on the issue. Rather, it makes the intelligent choice of presenting both sides as misguided and inept in their positions. The Jihadists are portrayed as incompetent for comedic purposes, but what ends up being so shocking about this film is how we end up empathizing with them. We end up seeing their dream develop and see their hope in this grand terrorist strike. Yes, terrorism is bad and yes, we do not want their plot to succeed, but it is hard to not become a little bit sensitive to these terrorists. They talk and act like teenage boys coming up with some neighborhood mischief. They don’t seem like the enemy of evil, freedom, apple pie and everything good. It’s heart breaking really, because the ambition of these men could be directed to do so much good. This is especially true for the leader of the Lions, Omar. He works a dead end job, is faced with constant set backs and his fair share of racial discrimination. Omar is likable and kind to everyone he sees. When he talks about serving a higher purpose you actually want him to find his higher call. But his higher call is terrorism, and that’s where reality comes crashing in.
Four Lions is a genius of a movie for developing this balance between liking the characters and also knowing that what they are doing is inherently wrong. Although you like the characters, you never really end up cheering for their strike to succeed, and when they initiate their plan it’s sad and haunting. Opposing the Jihadist is the English government. These equally incompetent men are portrayed as generally confused and hopelessly misunderstanding of the situation. We see them arrest a peaceful group of Muslims because they are… well.. Muslim. During the climax of the movie a police negotiator (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) tries to reason with one of the terrorists by asking him about what types of girls he likes. The message is clear: We do not really understand these people. What we are doing is not working. It’s a hard lesson to learn.
Besides the satire, Four Lions is ridiculously funny. It has the same dry humor and wit of the best Monty Python skits and enough physical slapstick to keep things from becoming too dry. The Jihadists are so inept and stupid in their planning that one can not help but laugh at them and their plans. Try to bomb London using crows with bombs attached? Sure! Consider bombing a mosque in order to radicalize the moderates and usher in the end of the world? Sure! The film really shines when things start falling apart, when we have a terrorist trying to rap about his convictions, and when the final plan involves wearing a TMNT suit. All the while there are plenty of laughs to keep the audience satisfied. This is a film worth seeing. I would even call it an important film. Four Lions is a Dr. Strangelove for our generations, once again proving that razor sharp satire and biting commentary is often best delivered to the background of the laughs of your audience.