Wartime comedies, released while the conflict is still ongoing, are nothing new. Ernst Lubitsch teamed with radio comedian Jack Benny at the beginning of World War Two to create the classic To Be Or Not To Be, while all the studios who produced cartoons took animated fire on all the Axis powers. Robert Altman’s MASH was released during the Vietnam War and although ostensibly set during the Korean War, it was actually about the then more current conflict.
Which brings us to Four Lions, whose screenplay credits contain two of the writers of 2008’s wickedly smart satire In The Loop to its credit. But where that movie shone a light on the ridiculousness of the political process that fuels many of the decisions in the ongoing War on Terror, Four Lions focuses on the other side of the conflict.
Waj, Barry, Faisal and Omar are, to put it kindly, not the brightest bulbs. Coming off as more the Four Stooges of the jihadist world than actual threats, their previous attempts at terrorism have included such questionable acts as baking a Twin Towers cake and leaving it on a synagogue’s doorstep on the anniversary of September 11. Their try at making one of those radical online videos is equally disastrous. Barry, easily the most extreme of the fairly easy-going group, concocts a plan that ironically recalls some of those “9/11 was an inside job!” conspiracy theories, wherein they will bomb one of their own Mosques in order to “radicalize the moderates!” Waj and Omar manage to get to an al-Queda training camp in Afgahistan, they are kicked out after just a few days thanks to an incident with a wrongly aimed rocket launcher. But these, and other setbacks, only strengthen their resolve to perform some act of self-sacrifice for the Mujahideen.
What makes Four Lions so effective is that how carefully each of the characters are fleshed out. They have their own quirks and personality traits. One is a family man who just wants the best for his son, while another thinks that their extreme brand of Islam can best be communicated through rap. Barry is so wrapped up in things that he can twist the simple act of someone wishing him “Good morning,” into a racist slur hurdled against him. These are definitely not the usual swarthy, be-turbaned terrorist stereotypes often utilized in Hollywood movies. They sing pop songs on their way to be suicide bombers. As the film unspools and we get to know them each better, we start to hope that they will fail or turn away from their self-appointed mission.
Freshman director Chris Morris walks a fine line between realism and the sublimely ridiculous and doesn’t misstep. To be sure, there’s an undercurrent of darkness to the film, and every slapstick pratfall runs the risk of being deadly explosive to a character. Four Lions follows through to its logical and bitter end, and in doing so reminds us of the lesson that Stanley Kubrick taught us in Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb about the stupidity and futility of war.