J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Comedy of Terror: Four Lions

Just because they are incompetent, it doesn’t mean they wouldn’t kill us if they had the chance. Yes, we can all laugh at Richard Reid, the notorious “Shoe Bomber,” but it is important to remember he intended to blow up a plane loaded with innocent people. In that spirit, a truly subversive new British comedy gives Islamist terrorists the merciless mocking they so richly deserve, without sugarcoating their murderous ideology. From director-co-writer Chris Morris, who will surely be going into hiding quite soon, Four Lions (trailer here) must be considered the boldest satire of the year when it opens in New York this Friday.

Omar is the outward picture of respectability—a hardworking family man, who just happens to be a devout Muslim. He also wants to martyr himself in a terrorist attack and his loving wife seems to be okay with this. Welcome to today’s Britain. The see-no-evil media has not prepared you for what you are about to witness.

Pursuing his ambitions, Omar and his lunk-headed friend Waj head off to Pakistan to enroll in an Al-Qaeda training camp, but they turn out to be terrorists who cannot shoot straight. Returning to his British cell demoralized Omar figures they ought to at least be able to blow themselves up in suicide bombings. Even that seems to be beyond the capabilities of “Azzam al-Britanni” or Barry, an Anglo convert blowhard. Hassan, the would-be rapper-hipster, does not inspire much confidence either. Still, as dumb as they might be, if you load these blokes down with enough explosives, they could cause an awful lot of suffering.

To his credit, Morris pull no punches whatsoever in Lions. He makes it explicitly clear Omar’s cell is motivated by their Islamic fervor. There is no masking their anti-Semitism either. Perhaps most damning though is the film’s depiction of ostensibly cooler heads, like Omar’s wife, who ought to intervene, yet she consistently supports his death wish.

This is explosive stuff, but it is also quite funny, mixing sharply penned satire of a high order, with low slapstick comedy. It might be a heavy statement, but Lions really is the closest thing to The Great Dictator for the era of Islamist terrorism. Indeed, like Adenoid Hynkel, Chaplin’s caricature of Hitler, the film uses broad humor to subvert the powerful image of Al-Qaeda and their ilk. As Omar, Riz Ahmed makes a credible (and ultimately chilling) straight man amid the literal insanity of his terror cell. Yet, Nigel Lindsay’s outrageously bellicose, more-Islamic-than-thou Barry generates the biggest laughs and takes the most risks. Frankly, he is also quite fortunate not to have a fatwa on his head.

Fours Lions must be the bravest, edgiest comedy of the year, even supassing Josh Appignanesi’s The Infidel (which was pretty bold itself). Yet, in a very real sense, it is sad how daring Lions seems. Unfortunately, American filmmakers have utterly abandoned the obviously fertile field of Islamist terror send-ups to the Brits. At least, Morris is up to the challenge, shaming Hollywood by delivering the comedic goods in spades. Probably the funniest film of the year, Lions opens this Friday (11/5) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

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