Taboo-busting is satire's supreme goal. Along with laughs, and a legitimate take on a subject, dropping the veil of vaunted import on an otherwise touchy subject is what the lampooner lives for. The best of these critical comedies find a way of shedding new light on an often sacred cow, commenting on it in a way that both illustrates its foibles and wickedly accentuates its flaws. Timeless examples include Dr. Strangelove (topic: the raging Cold War and nuclear proliferation), Network (tawdry television and the media), and the recent In the Loop (politicians and playing the 'War of Terror' game). We can now add Four Lions and suicide bombers/Muslim extremists to the list. Hoping to explain away and dismiss the actions of these craven criminals - and the entire terrorist temperament of society circa 2011 - co-writer/director Chris Morris delivers a devastatingly funny play on everything the post 9/11 years have stood for. The result is a jokey jihad that is more Young Ones than vital youth in revolt.
Terrorism comes home to Sheffield, England, as a group of jihadist minded militants - family man Omar, dofus Waj, white Islamic convert Barry, and explosives expert Faisal - try to come up with a suicide bombing plan. Most want to pick a practical target and get on with it. Barry wants to blow up a mosque in a bizarre form of backwards logic which he believes will cause the final War between his newfound religion and the rest of the world. The rest aren't so sure. When Omar and Waj head off to Pakistan to train with an Al-Qaeda group, a new recruit named Hassan is brought on. He believes he can influence events with that most deadly of weapons - rap. Rejected by their foreign brothers, Omar and Waj return home, even more desperate to destroy something. They finally settle on the London Marathon, dressing up in costume to conceal their identity, and the homemade bombs they are carrying around their waste. As with most things with these would-be radicals, things don't go quite as planned.
You can tell from the first scene that Four Lions is going to be brilliant. As the collection of crackpot terrorists try to film their video warning to the world, the lunkheaded Waj grabs a AK-47 replica and brandishes it at the screen. Sadly, it's a scale model, meaning its looks like a toy to everyone in the room. His answer? Get closer to the camera lens, making the gun appear "bigger." It's daft. It's dopey. And it's a delightfully delirious moment in a movie loaded with same. From the rapping radical who refers to himself by his hopeless hip-hop name, to the wannabe beefy group leader who has new recruits do strange, perverted things as part of their initiation, Four Lions flies directly in the face of our preconceived notions of the axis of evil and elevates their purpose to Three Stooges levels of ludicrousness. This is not supposed to be an accurate portrait of what really goes on inside various splinter cells around the world. Instead, we meet five English pretenders to the terrorism throne, each one with their own motives but all lacking enough sophistication to successfully pull off their lofty pro-Islamic goals.
There is no desire to humanize or empathize here. Everyone, from inferred guide Omar to bumbling bomb builder Faisal is a caricature of a cartoon. There's the everyday family man whose content with the notion of blowing himself up for a cause. There's the easily led brute, the weirdo, and so on. Together, Morris makes the most of his premise, constantly throwing in our face the preposterousness in their irrational radicalism. The big argument for these guys is that Jews and the Westernization of the world are out to destroy their faith. Yet when Omar's more devout brother shows up and criticizes the leeway he lends to his mouthy, modern wife, dogma takes a decided hit as well. In Four Lions, nothing is off limits. There is a constant debate between Islam in both philosophy and performance, a practiced amount of Israel-bashing, and more delicious derogatory curse slang tossing than any American movie can even begin to attempt. Like a Muslim Marx Brothers, these guys have their own unique language and the shortcuts are often as memorable as their meandering thought process.
Thankfully, Morris is around to make sure everything bubbles and squeaks. He keeps pace with the material, never letting the movie down until the last act, where he attempts a bit of emotional heft behind the hilarity. Since we have come to understand - and in some ways, see inside - these otherwise wacko warriors, the shift sort of works. Yes, we'd rather have more outrageous ideas from Barry (who for all intents and purposes is more disturbed than a direct threat) and Waj walking around like his brain is off center. There are a couple of ancillary British characters who almost overstay their welcome, and Morris fails to fully realize some of his aims (there really should be more clashing of cultural types here, especially between Omar and his brother). In the end, however, we get the desired payoff. Four Lions successfully argues for the often pointless result of misplaced violence. Sure, the innocent are destroyed and the message is metered out through the media, but what is the real endgame. Many more will try and many more will die. If their futility weren't this funny, Four Lions would be insulting. Instead, it's one of the more inspired satires in a very long time.
Since it was shot on High Definition video, the 1.85:1, 1080p/AVC encode looks remarkably good. While not quite "cinematic" in its designs, the colors are crisp and the details definable. There is a darker, muddier look to everything, but that comes from the technology used, not the transfer. In fact, one could argue for an almost documentary look to the production. Luckily, the image lacks many of the technological flaws one expects from such a production paradigm, and the overall effect fits in nicely with the film's "you are there" approach.
Equally good is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, which allows the various voices to come together in an excellent collage of chaos. We also get some nice exterior atmospherics, especially when Omar and Waj are in Pakistan, attacking US drones buzzing in the background. There is also a nice amount of spatial relationship between elements, as when characters come in and out of a scene. Similarly, the evocative soundtrack (filled with cultural clips as well as winning pop songs) comes across with crispness and clarity.
One the plus side, we get two compelling featurettes which delve deeper into the whole suicide bomber phenomenon - no, seriously. There is a nine minute piece on young Arab males in London and it's an eye-opener. Also a white Islamic convert (similar to Barry) is interviewed as he prepares to stand trial. On the down side, we don't get a commentary track from Morris, and the behind the scenes material and deleted scenes are superficial and slight.
Considering the hot topic material it takes on and the potential pitfalls inherent in same, Four Lions succeeds beyond your wildest expectations. You will indeed be laughing as a quartet of quasi-likeable militants decide to destroy themselves and blow up a few hundred innocent bystanders in the process. This is not a movie about politics or preaching a certain religious ideal. It's about finding the futile and the funny in the otherwise frightening, and for that, it earns an endearing Highly Recommended rating. There is nothing sweeter than a successful satire. Four Lions is indeed more enjoyable than an afterlife filled with rubber dinghy rapids and puffin parties.