Chris Morris’ Four Lions, which Morris co-wrote with Peep Show creators Jesse Armtstrong and Sam Bain, seems more incendiary than it is. Its premise—a group of Muslim terrorists living in Sheffield train for, then try to carry out, a suicide attack—make it sound like an all-purpose offender. People who don’t like making light of national security (in the United States and the UK) would probably have something to say about it, and Muslims who would prefer not to be portrayed as terrorists may rightly have a thing or two to add as well.
But the film pretty beautifully threads the needle, partially by portraying every other Muslim in the film as a peaceful person who want the main characters to stop what they’re doing, but mostly because it, for 95 percent of its running time, is a terrific farce about fanaticism.
I’ve seen comparisons to Spinal Tap, but the film that immediately sprung to my mind was Duck Soup. No, Four Lions isn’t as madcap as that classic Marx Bros. film, but the satirical thrust is the same. In Duck Soup, war turns crazy, incompetent people crazier and stupider. In Four Lions, the War on Terrorism has the same effect everyone—the young terrorists, the older terrorists who train them, the police, the government.
The movie’s first half is full of scenes like the one above. That is, purely funny, “Boy, aren’t these guys stupid?” bits. Somewhere around the halfway point someone (SPOILER) blows up, and the humor turns much darker. Somehow, Morris, Bain and Armstrong manage to keep things funny, mainly through juxtaposing the seriousness of what these guys are trying to do with the triviality of their daily lives.
This all falls apart in the last five minutes or so. When the terrorists finally go to carry out their big attack, things get progressively more serious, until the whole thing finally turns into a straight-up drama about people who do severe things without thinking them through. It’s a bummer. But then, I don’t know how else they could have ended things, either. I mean, that’s not exactly something you can walk away from.
Once the credits start rolling, the satire does return, with some funny observations about how the government reacts to the big, closing incident. But as they rolled past, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted about the movie. I mean, in Duck Soup, they just got pelted with fruit.