Four Lions (Drafthouse Films) is a jihadi comedy. The cognitive dissonance produced by that sentence drives the whole movie forward; if you’re offended by the very concept of a terrorist cell as a laugh riot, you probably shouldn’t see the movie. Or maybe you should. It will certainly be the only movie this year in which one Muslim terrorist begs another’s forgiveness via online puffin avatar, or whose closing credits include the disclaimer that “One sheep was blown up in the making of this film.” (Ovine activists can breathe easy: A later credit makes clear that the disclaimer is itself a joke.) The very existence of Four Lions is an act of audacity; the fact that it’s also smart, humane, and frequently hilarious is nothing short of a miracle.
Four Lions, directed by the British comedian Chris Morris, is being described as a terrorism-themed This Is Spinal Tap. But the movie it reminded me of was last year’s In The Loop, a political satire whose central joke was that wars get started when the people in power are too vain and stupid to recognize or admit when they’re wrong. Here, the protagonists operate under the fierce conviction that scheming to blow stuff up makes them radical, world-changing martyrs. Never mind that their grasp of reality is so remedial that they believe the Jews invented sparkplugs to control global traffic, or that the best way to construct a top-secret bomb stash is to order the ingredients on Amazon.
Four Lions begins with four men in a room in an unnamed British city, trying to tape a menacing terrorist video to be posted online. It’s clear from the get-go that this band of morons can’t agree on anything, from the framing of the shot to the wording of their message to what exactly it is that they’re threatening to do. Omar (Riz Ahmed), who clears the low bar of being the most intelligent of the gang, wants to train as a “proper soldier” at a mujahideen camp in Pakistan. (In a nice sardonic touch, the antimaterialist Omar works by day as a mall security guard.) The belligerent Barry, a Caucasian convert to the cause, proposes bombing a mosque “to radicalize the moderates.” Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) knows a thing or two about munitions, but rather than blow himself up, he plans to create an army of bomb-carrying crows. And the oafish Waj (Kayvan Novak) has no plan at all beyond railing at the infidels who prefer McDonald’s to the halal bucket at Chicken Cottage. In a running joke that never stops being funny, Omar switches into Urdu to issue his more caustic streams of invective, as when he accuses his barely functional comrades-in-arms of being “useless, fuck-my-auntie-from-a-standing position, pajama-wearing, cockerel dicks.”
As with In the Loop, the filmmaking style here is loose and low-fi, an extended series of sketches rather than a tightly plotted story. Omar and Waj spend time at a Pakistani training camp but are kicked out for general incompetence. Barry, while participating “undercover” in a panel on religious tolerance, recruits a young hothead, Hassan (Arsher Ali), who seems to have mistaken being a jihadi for being a gangsta rapper. By fits and starts, and despite a series of increasingly bloody mistakes, the men hatch a plot to bomb the London marathon.
Not every one of these sketches is equally effective—there’s a bit too much time spent on Barry’s bluster, and not enough on the wonderful interplay between canny Omar and clueless Waj—but in its best scenes, Four Lions takes the sick logic of terrorism to its logical parodic extreme. If innocent bystanders are part of the expected collateral damage from a terrorist attack, what about blowing up a restaurant full of Muslims who also happen to be jihadi sympathizers? At what point does violence for a cause (which, deluded though they may be, these guys believe they’re fighting for) lose its meaning and become senseless murder? For those of us watching in the audience, of course, the answer is simple: terrorism is always senseless murder. But as we watch these guys engage in elaborate mental gymnastics to justify their deeds, we get a glimpse of ideological obfuscation in action. “Listen to your heart,” Omar counsels Waj, trying to psych him up for a dangerous mission. “My heart says this is wrong,” responds Waj, to which Omar, thinking fast, replies, “What does your head say?”
Far from the cynical, nihilist satire its premise might suggest, Four Lions reads, in the end, as a passionate and bleakly funny brief against extremism in all its forms. One of Four Lions’ subplots involves Omar’s deeply religious, law-abiding brother, who visits Omar’s house to scold him for giving his wife too much freedom. When Omar laughs it off, the brother responds sternly, “Joking is a sign of weakness.” That axiom could be the reverse motto of this brave, brutal, often bloody comedy: It’s in its willingness to laugh at the unthinkable that the movie finds its strength.