Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, including some Sexual References
Directed by: Chris Morris
Written by: Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong & Sam Bain
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay, Adeel Akhtar, Arsher Ali, Craig Parkinson, Preeya Kalidas, Julia Davis & Benedict Cumberbatch
Islamic terrorism and comedy aren’t typically a combination that you see much for obvious reasons. Films have mixed the two in the past with controversial, darkly hilarious results. For example, Matt Stone and Trey Parker made a feature-length 9/11 joke with TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE and Uwe Boll stooped to Troma tastelessness in video game adaptation POSTAL. However, the understandably uncomfortable title of “best jihadist comedy” easily goes to Chris Morris’s FOUR LIONS. Morris made a name for himself as a British satirist (with decades of TV material) and this was his feature film debut. Besides containing undeniably hilarious moments and colorful characters, FOUR LIONS also seems to have a frightening amount of truth behind its many laughs.
Omar (Riz Ahmed), Waj (Kayvan Novak), Barry (Nigel Lindsay), and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) are four radicalized British-Muslims who aspire to be suicide bombers. Their dream may finally be realized when critical Omar and dim-witted Waj take a trip to a training camp in Pakistan, quickly finding themselves in over their heads. Meanwhile, Barry meets a new recruit in amateur rapper Hassan (Arsher Ali) to help plan an attack and idiotic Faisal gathers household supplies. However, things don’t exactly go according to plan and the five moronic radicals find themselves at odds with their conflicting jihadist schemes.
FOUR LIONS has an incredibly difficult task ahead of itself from the get-go. It has to make five terrorists into watchable characters, with a few of them being somewhat humanized. Riz Ahmed plays Omar as the most level-headed of the group, level-headed for a radical Muslim terrorist anyway, and very much succeeds as the main protagonist. Kayvan Novak plays slow-in-the-head cousin Waj as a bit of a sympathetic figure, who is frequently manipulated by the smarter members of the group. Speaking of which, Nigel Lindsay is hysterically evil as the irrationally hot-headed Barry. His constant contradictions, fiery attitude, and massive ego make him into a hugely entertaining antagonist.
Adeel Akhtar doesn’t receive nearly as much screen time as the main three performers, but he does receive three of the funniest scenes in the entire film. One of these moments has Adeel strapping a bomb to a crow in order to avoid killing himself. Even though I could easily predict how this scene would end, I was dying with laughter due to the skillfully executed build-up and (literally) explosive punchline. Arsher Ali is the rookie member of the group and injects a bit of naïve innocence into the mix as he really seems at odds with everybody (at one point or another). Preeya Kalidas has a couple of moments as Omar’s caring wife and purposely going against the submissive Muslim wife cliché at points. Benedict Cumberbatch also briefly pops up as a hostage negotiator.
The film is shot in a naturalistic style that sort of reminded me of a documentary. This lends a bit of realism to the chaotically funny and darkly satirical mix, while also resulting in the viewer letting their guard down a bit. The plot moves from set piece to set piece, but naturally connects them all into an overarching storyline. It should be noted that FOUR LIONS has some of the darkest comedy I’ve ever seen, but there’s also a serious turn at the tail-end of the film. Honest emotion is thrown into the depressing, shocking climax that I didn’t expect and this directly came from the plot relying on strongly written characters/great performances.
FOUR LIONS is one of the ballsiest comedies that I’ve ever seen and also contains a stroke of truth in it. Most films show terrorists as carefully-plotting organizations that instantly strike fear into the hearts of any rational human being and FOUR LIONS portrays them as moronic idiots who don’t really know what the hell they’re doing. Even if the latter is not always the case in reality, this portrayal does take groups like ISIS down a significant peg. When you’re making fun of something, you’re automatically taking power away from it and shining a humorous light on a subject that might have otherwise been stressing you out. FOUR LIONS is a great satire for plenty of reasons and this final point helped cement it as one of my new favorite comedies of the 2010s!