The line between comedy and tragedy is notoriously tough to nail down, but popular dramatic theory goes something like this: If the main character realizes he’s being a jackass in time to do something about it, it’s a comedy; if his big moment of self-awareness comes when he’s past the point of no return, though, tragedy is surely on the horizon and he shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near his wife/mom’s costume jewelry.
The black-as-night British comedy Four Lions, then, has all the makings of a classic tragedy. It’s also the funniest movie I’ve seen in a long time, so figure that one out. Director Chris Morris’ tale of five grossly incompetent jihadists lacks even a casual relationship with good taste and will surely rankle some feathers, but it’s absurdist satire at its very best.
Inspired by the true story of a group of terrorists who sank their own boat by overloading it with explosives, Four Lions follows the exploits of five militant British Muslims who wage their own supremely ridiculous war against the perceived evils of Western imperialism. While most movies prefer to paint terrorists as evil geniuses with diabolical plots and unlimited resources to realize them, Four Lions takes an oddly more comforting approach: Its titular characters can barely afford to maintain the decrepit car they share, and do well to successfully navigate a drive to the airport and back.
Omar (Riz Ahmed), the group’s leader and, tellingly, its voice of reason, is expelled from a terrorist training camp in Pakistan when he accidentally blows up a prominent mujahideen leader. Barry (Nigel Lindsay) wants to strike a blow for the Muslim community by bombing a mosque, Waj (Kayvan Novak) has a hard time telling the difference between a chicken and a rabbit, and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) tries to throw authorities off his trail by disguising himself as a terrorist when buying bomb-making supplies from a local shop. Hassan (Arsher Ali) pronounces “died” so it rhymes with “creed,” because his rap would sound silly otherwise. They hatch an outlandish scheme to attack the London Marathon dressed as Ninja Turtles and ostriches; it isn’t much of a spoiler to say that things don’t work out as planned. The five would-be suicide bombers find that blowing themselves up is surprisingly easy. Taking anyone else with them is the hard part.
In case it needs to be said, Four Lions is not for all tastes. Many will find it outright offensive; in making fools of its extremist anti-heroes, it also satirizes our fear of them and our apparent inability to do much about them. By the time the credits roll, no one comes out looking good. The terrorists are ineffectual idiots, but so are the authorities who are supposed to stop them. They raid the wrong houses, shoot the wrong marathoners, and generally muck up everything they touch. It’s all in a days work for Morris, best known as the creator of Brass Eye, a British television series that spoofed England’s inclination to moral panic.
In the midst of its slapstick antics, though, Four Lions manages to make a few points that will be profoundly uncomfortable for many viewers. Despite of their utter inability to get anything right, the five young men at the center of the film are neither evil nor particularly alien to Western audiences. They lead relatively comfortable lives, but are incensed by injustices that don’t affect them directly. They desperately want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and to do something that will make their families proud of them. They think those who espouse peaceful solutions are weak and misguided. They firmly believe God will reward them for their sacrifice. In other words, they aren’t that different from the well-meaning young people who join the armed forces of any cause or country—including our own. If it blurs the line between tragedy and comedy, Four Lions obliterates the one between “us” and “them.”