LAFF 2010 Review: FOUR LIONS
Editor's Note: This review was originally published on June 28, 2010.
Is the possibility of a personally-waged jihad ever funny? Thanks to director Christopher Morris, the answer is now “well, sometimes.” Morris’ feature film debut opens with four British Muslims attempting to film their own scare tactic video to disseminate to the public. But, far from threatening, these four are laughably bumbling, men who think it’s possible to “blow up the internet” and whose idea of disguising themselves involves using “different voices” that sound curiously like their own. Their distaste for secular culture may extend as far as a deep hatred for Mini Babybel cheese, but it doesn’t stop them from existing in what looks to be totally normal and modern lives. They may be confused, but they’re not sure.
FOUR LIONS quickly zooms from the creation of the ill-conceived video to two of our main idiots, Omar and Waj (as played by Riz Ahmed and Kayvan Novak, respectively), shipping off to a training camp in Pakistan. They leave behind Barry (Nigel Lindsay) and Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), both intent on shoring up their big plan to kickstart a British jihad while Omar and Waj personally wreck havoc on the poor camp and its inhabitants. While the brief trip to Pakistan and Omar and Waj’s foray into the world of the training camp strikes an oddly intrusive chord in the film’s progression, it does allow a couple of important things to happen – the boys end up making quite possibly the biggest mistake of their entire lives (hilariously, of course) and Barry brings a new guy into the fold. Young Malik “The Mal” Hassan crashes a debate that Barry is unloading his particular bit of nonsense on, and ends up impressing him with both his wacky dedication and his lyrical stylings (the Mal is big into Tupac).
With Omar and Waj’s return, the five lay into crafting their plan. They hilariously vacillate between ideas, from blowing up their own local mosque to misdirect anger, to sending in crows loaded with explosives, to practicing anti-surveillance techniques that a five year old may have conceived of. They make think they need liquid peroxide and off-target costumes and a children’s chatroom (Puffin Party!) to carry out whatever the hell they think they’re truly capable of, but what they really need is a clue.
The main source of humor (and there’s a lot of it here) in FOUR LIONS revolves around the absolute impossibility of any of their plans working out correctly. Omar and Barry and their merry band of morons think that, because they are dedicated Muslims, this will translate into success in terms of leading their own jihad. It does not. FOUR LIONS is very much in the vein of a Christopher Guest film – people who believe that their passion for something will make them good at it (like the theater nerds of WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, or the Hollywood also-rans of FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION). But even with Omar and his own level-headedness attempting to lead the charge, there is no way this will pan out well, given that everyone else involved is simply so idiotic. Barry is unhinged. Fessal is along for the ride. Hassan is too young to understand what they’re doing. Waj is possibly the dumbest human being on the continent.
Morris and his cast deftly handle a touchy and timely subject with well-placed humor and copious intelligence. What keeps FOUR LIONS from straying into the path of exploitation or mocking is that Omar, Barry, Waj, and the rest of them could be from, not just any religion, but from any group that allows themselves to be consumed with ideals they may be unable to live up to. FOUR LIONS is deeply, deeply funny – not just in terms of cerebral giggles, but real belly laughs that will keep the audience roaring. I walked out with my stomach sore.
The film suffers from pacing issues throughout, however. The beginning starts up too quickly, the middle muddles a bit, and the ending gets saddled with some of the best action that may come a tad too late. Morris is unafraid to blow everything (and everyone) right out of the water, which begins to feel stunty as we go on. When the film reaches its conclusion, the results of what the lions have planned relies heavily on how the audience has attached themselves to the characters throughout the film. It’s either necessary and believable, or stilted and too “loud.” But despite these hiccups, FOUR LIONS is an outstanding example of the best of what can come when the blackest of humor is combined with the most fallible of anti-heroes.