Chris Morris is well known for his popular and offensively brilliant sketch comedies produced for the BBC. The fact that this previous work is not readily available to the US market will hurt the immediate appeal of this movie. Since, the film’s subject will most likely turn off most Americans. Basically there are two reasons working against this film pulling in a wider audience.
The first is that the movie follows a group of hapless British terrorists as they prepare to wage jihad upon the demon West – namely London. And, frankly, London is very far away and not very American.
The second reason stems right out of the first. The movie is particularly British: it is steeped in the British slang and relies heavily upon familiarity with the Middle Eastern immigrant’s experience in the UK. Even a snooty BBC America-watching, YouTube-scouring Anglophile (of which I count myself among) will miss quite a number of the references and jokes.
Further, our American pop culture landscape has not been very friendly to the Middle Eastern experience. Our war movies paint them as the hostile Other (rarely even subtitling their dialogue – something all the WWII movies manage to do for the Nazis) or wrap them in the complicated foil of heavy handed political ‘statement’ (espousing monologues meant to shame or enrage the audience, depending on slant). Think, too, how the Middle Easterner is reduced to Islamic Fundamentalist, stripped of national origin, gradation of religious denomination, or subtly of political parties. The cancelled television show, 24, is the richest source for such black and white critiques.
So it should not be surprising that a movie about a terror cell, no matter how incompetent, would prove to be a hard sell to even the most hip, ironic, and jaded audiences. Making the hard sell even more difficult is the film’s structure. FOUR LIONS drifts between typical comedic formulas. There is a loose narrative that introduces short sketches/vignettes (most of which might work divorced from the narrative of the movie). And the suspended reality that buoys slapstick and idiocy fades in and out of the movie. One moment, characters are blowing up crows or misfiring rocket launchers to unbelievable result.
The next moment the humor shifts and the gang is squabbling loudly about broken cars or where to target or confessing to the bizarrely scatological tests the cell members are subjected to by the English convert and would-be-leader Barry. These tests of allegiance and endurance all happen thankfully off screen; something a lesser movie would have subjected the audience to, especially if done by the hateful and humorless directors, the Farley Brothers.
The film works brilliantly when it allows the evil, radicalized, unfocused radicalism to be glimpsed at its most mundane. Like Hassan’s rap personae or his firecracker introduction, or the off moments when the lads are fooling around with the explosives, playing like bored and unthinking teenagers, not diabolical terrorist masterminds. This culminates in the difficulty they group has recording a terrorist video. Without a coherent message, too influenced by Western celebrity and media, the posturing fails at all levels – ultimately rendering the terrorist activity meaninglessly banal.
This unfocused terror is a symptom of the Age Of Terror, Morris seems to want to assert. In the epiphany scene of the flick, Omar and his wife are sitting discussing the impending suicide “martyrdom,” when they are visited by a friend, a fundamentalist Muslim. Ostensibly, the Fundamentalist is there to dissuade Omar from his path of violence. But the friend will not enter the same room with Omar’s wife and ends up scolding the secular way they live. As the three argue, basically, about modernization and women’s equality, the debate slips into a squirt gun fight.
The scene drives home the fact that Omar’s drive is less about religion and more about a vague dissatisfaction and radical hatred of Western excess, all of which Omar and his family seem to embody. The idea that terrorist activity is an established counterculture lifestyle choice is driven, ludicrously, home as the gang strap on their bombs and funny costumes. The audience is asked to confront the realization that these dolts are not only going to die, but kill other people as they finalize their stupid plot. There is a moment when you root for these plucky, against-all-odds dummies. But that moment is quickly replaced by the Keystone Kops foot chase that has Omar trying to buy a new cell phone and the British police responding very poorly to the whole situation.
In short, FOUR LIONS could and should have been better.