Chris Morris’ corrosive black comedy Four Lions explores the lighter side of jihad. It’s a ballsy romp through one of the least lighthearted subjects imaginable, a wacky slapstick comedy that gleans big, cathartic laughs from the surreal juxtaposition of the mundane and the militantly spiritual, and the impossible gulf between its hapless anti-heroes’ delusional perception of themselves as fearless religious warriors, and the much-less-grandiose reality.
Riz Ahmed stars as the token grown-up in a terrorist cell that’s otherwise the exclusive domain of overgrown adolescents merely playing at being holy warriors. Ahmed longs to die a martyr’s noble death, but co-conspirators who are a danger only to themselves and their cause stymie him at every step. There’s a hapless Ali G. type who expresses his guileless enthusiasm for holy war via inane raps, a milquetoast sad sack, and a would-be charismatic cult leader who unfortunately (or fortunately) fatally lacks both charisma and leadership skills.
Four Lions is less Abbott & Costello Meet Osama Bin Laden than Abbott & Costello Are Osama Bin Laden: The bad guys, anti-heroes, and comical bunglers are all one and the same. There’s something strangely humanizing and even faintly humanistic about the film’s depiction of would-be holy warriors who wrestle with the same anxieties, fears, and hopes as the rest of us. The jihadists here register as all too recognizable; it’s easy to both laugh at them and identify with their neuroses. Morris has a lot of fun spoofing his subjects’ vanity; even terrorists threatening to deliver a deathblow to the godless secular world want to look good on camera. Four Lions maintains such a ramshackle, loosey-goosey, larkish vibe, it can be easy to forget its grim subject matter, but there are moments throughout when the wackiness dissipates and the high stakes involved become bracingly apparent. Four Lions is audacious and uncompromising, a fearless comedy that isn’t afraid to use exploding bodies as punchlines, especially during a rousing climax that will forever change the way audiences see comical animal costumes. Like few satires, domestic or otherwise, Four Lions feels dangerous; it’s an edgy provocation that alchemizes tragedy into literally explosive comedy.