Americans love them some 9/11. Whether being used as a way to frame the world (“Everything changed after 9/11”), a way to rally patriotism (the eloquent, “NINE ELEVEN!”), or a way for gas bags in suits to get elected, 9/11 is America’s catch phrase (I myself prefer to call it the September 11th attacks to free 9 and 11 from each other every now and again).
Hopefully the U.K. terrorist comedy Four Lions represents a gradual shift in rhetoric. The film follows four Muslims in the U.K. trying to prove themselves as bad ass terrorists, talking up the exploits of the mujahideen and Al-Qaeda like kids idolizing the gangsta life of Fifty Cent. The crew is made up of:
Omar: the brains
Barry: the white convert who is the most radical
Waj: the simpleton
Faisal: so stupid he’s funny
When Omar and Waj leave for a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, Barry recruits youngster Hassan after he pulls a faux-suicide bombing stunt at a university discussion of Islam. Meanwhile, Omar and Waj return early from their training after royally screwing up, but to avoid embarrassment, Omar is forced to put their talk of suicide attacks into action.
The complexities with this film are vast. Frequently the group talks about “Western consumerist decadence” and going “jihad on their asses” yet Omar lives a nice middle class life. As he sits at a laptop reviewing the footage of a terrorist video the group’s been making, his wife Sophia and their son talk to him casually about his plans for martyrdom. The physical space of the house and natural lighting present this place as idyllic and inviting, the same “decadence” he decries. Further, when Omar’s orthodox Muslim brother visits, he refuses to look at Sophia. Omar and Sophia make fun of him, with Sophia running him out of the house with a squirt gun.
The juxtaposition between Omar’s home life and his terrorist plans is stark. You don’t get the sense from any of the “Lions” that they know exactly why they’re planning to blow themselves up. We never see them harmed by racial profiling or any other events to be called a motive. Omar’s contemptuous attitude toward his brother’s strict adherence to Islam and the Barry failing to recall the last time he went to the mosque make these guys Muslims in name only (like many Catholics). In the end, the characters themselves don’t seem to know why they’re doing this.
The film’s genius or failure lies in this confusion. Four Lions could be about a bunch of Muslims who have no identities other than terrorists. But really it just reminded me of a bunch of high school kids playing with explosives who slowly realize the seriousness of their shenanigans.
The thing that cripples the film is its inability to transition between the serious and the comedic. The film is hilarious, but sporadically in a way that drags. And when someone dies, you’re not really sure if you’re supposed to laugh or be shocked. The film’s conclusion just left you thinking, “Well that was stupid,” since we don’t really know their motivation. Hence, the sense of drama and poignancy we’re supposed to feel by the end is lost.
If Four Lions had kept to the comedic track and treated all events with the absurdity they deserved, instead of abrupt calls for depth, the comparisons to This is Spinal Tap would be more apt. Though a film like Shaun of the Dead was able to jump from funny, to scary, to downright tear inducing sadness, such shifts are not an easy task and Four Lions just couldn’t do it.
The character motivations and the abrupt transitions in tone hurt the film, but the great acting from the cast and the subject matter make it at least noteworthy. Four Lions is interesting, but not to the point of greatness.