In his book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright tells the story of how, in 1996, the Taliban captured the Afghan capitol of Kabul and began enforcing an insanely draconian interpretation of Sharia law. Not content to ban alcohol, chess and firecrackers, or to jail any man whose beard wasn’t longer than the grip of his hand, the zealots turned their attention to the animals in the Kabul zoo. One young man hopped into a cage and sliced off a bear’s nose, because the creature’s “beard” was too short. “Another fighter,” Wright reports, “intoxicated by events and his own power, leaped into the lion’s den and cried out, ‘I am the lion now!’ The lion killed him.”
I thought back to this story quite a bit while watching Four Lions, and not merely because of the title, or because the cell of bumbling British jihadists in Chris Morris’ divine new comedy end up disguised as a turtle, an ostrich and a bear, or even because their understanding of the natural world is so limited that one of them repeatedly mistakes a chicken for a “rabbit with fucked-up ears.” No, the reason is simpler than that. It’s because they’re morons. Their idiocy isn’t entirely caused by their embrace of radical Islam, though (as is the case with any religious fundamentalism) it doesn’t help. Seeking their 72 virgins, the five men who call themselves the Four Lions behave like the Three Stooges. Their aim is suicide bombing. They’ll probably manage the suicide part.
Offended yet? Chris Morris is no novice at finding sacred cows and opening a slaughterhouse. He’s not as well known stateside as Sacha Baron Cohen, but he practiced a similar satire on the BBC—though his lampooning went further. Much further. His 2001 Brass Eye “special report” on child molestation, Paedogeddon, sent up sensationalist TV journalism by reporting a pedophile had been blasted into space in a prison satellite—but an 8-year-old boy had been accidentally shipped with him. (“This is the one thing we didn’t want to happen.”) For his feature film debut, he’s brought with him screenwriters Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, who pen the U.K. sitcom Peep Show, specializing in angry, dim young men.
As in Peep Show—and last year’s snarling British political farce In the Loop—the one thing everybody in Four Lions is pretty adept at is insults, often with a tinge of barnyard Pashto and Urdu. (My favorites, though I wouldn’t want to limit them, include “you monkey-bollock duster,” “you floppy camel sphincter” and “pajama-wearing cockerel dicks.”) Most of these lines are delivered by Omar (Riz Ahmed), the cell leader, a family man and the nearest thing to a cool head. The other conspirators include Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who raises crows for aerial attacks, terrible rapper Hassan (Arsher Ali), and convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay), who hopes to usurp power in the group with his master plan to bomb a mosque and blame the Jews. The cast is uniformly brilliant, but my favorite is Kayvan Novak as Waj, who looks a little like Ashton Kutcher and who understands martyrdom as the spiritual equivalent of cutting to the front of the line at a theme park: “Rubber dinghy rapids, bro.”
Does this seem a hair too…worldly? Here’s the funniest thing about Four Lions: Though its mockery is unsparing and its conclusion unflinching, it humanizes Islamist terrorists in a way that no movie has even attempted before, because it understands they’re made from the same selfishness and stupidity as anybody else. In an interview with WW, Morris says his strongest inspiration was Dog Day Afternoon, and Four Lions is true to that source—it poignantly suggests its criminals are trapped in an action they misjudged at the outset. They’re not entirely different from the police snipers who shoot first, then argue over whether the costumed corpse below is a Wookiee or a bear: “It must be the target, because I shot it.” A similar anti-logic is employed by jihadist Barry, who argues against empty gestures by driving his car into a brick wall. “Was that a gesture?” he asks. “That was for real, brother. Are you as for real as that?” Four Lions is for real. It’s the bravest cinema of the year.