With festival awards or nominations and underground acclaim in Britain, “the UK’s foremost political satirist” Chris Morris’ feature debut (also co-wrote), Four Lions, faces tough sledding on this side of the Atlantic. Unless it is dubbed or subtitled, Americans will find the machine-gun English Pakistani-community accents indecipherable. And although our overseas cousins, too, are still picking their own terrorist wounds, the tale is one which people here are less likely to warm to, much less laugh at.
In neither of its incarnations does current Carlos relax for the slightest light touch, nor does its one-dimensional terrorist hero ever crack a warm smile or a joke. In addition to lengthy research and interviews, what Assayas’ dramatization and Morris’ take do have in common, nevertheless, is showing up the many bunglings of fanatics, mishaps lost in the flare of the occasional spectacular hit. As well, in both considerations there is collateral damage, not in every case intended but still to be reckoned with and not necessarily caused by the bad guys, as when London police snipers take out the wrong masquerade costume at the Marathon and cannot agree whether a Honey Monster is a Bear.
Lenny Bruce knew that “all my humor is based upon destruction and despair and violence” but was among our few commentators who dared be truly scathing on truly delicate or taboo topics, a knack that the Brits continue but that touches too close to domestic sore spots for Americans.
The four terrorists are not dismissible as merely publicity’s “idiots,” for in today’s urban West they are dangerous, do kill and maim, and do have access to weapons and harmful chemicals. That two of them are less than bright does not change that. Bearded Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), for example, buys tons of explosive ingredient hydrogen peroxide at the corner pharmacy, changing his voice at each purchase and one time pretending to be a female whose hands hide her/his beard “because she has a beard.” His victims are only himself and a sheep when he trips over a stone wall -- “one sheep was blown up in the making of this film” -- but could easily have been innocent people like others who later have the bad luck to be trapped in bombed kebab houses and drug stores.
When Londoners Omar (Riz Ahmed) and Hassin (Arsher Ali) go to training camp in Pakistan, they are accused of a “James Bond” mentality and soon, in fact, mislaunch a rocket into a nearby hideout in which, end-titles announce, a US drone registered Bin Laden’s death. Dispatched home and reading about jihadist Simba to his young son and kidding around with liberated wife Sofia (Preeya Kalidas), Omar is one of two “masterminds.” The other is older Barry (Nigel Lindsay), now Azziz al-Britani and affecting to be as Muslim as he can.
The other doofuses posing for camcorders with toy AK-47s or singing Urdu rap, Barry and Omar disagree on targets, the former opting for a mosque and blaming it on others to radicalize coreligionists, with Omar deciding to strike at crowds massed for the capital’s famous 42.2-k race. The cell’s members admitting to “I think I might be confused, I’m not sure,” or to inability to distinguish head from heart, they are a sorry bunch with no coherent ideology or planning, meant to be humanized but, given their aims, not eliciting sympathy. Dim robbers foil and kill no one but themselves in that triumph of black comedy, Ealing’s The Ladykillers. In jumpy unnecessary close-up, the Four Lions gang that couldn’t shoot straight merely staggers from one pratfall to another. The dimwits outwit no one but themselves, while the capacity for real massacre, including of Muslims, is unintentionally shadowed in a public conference where a confetti body-bomb could as easily have been the real thing.
Not even sure in which direction Mecca lies, they and this “jihad of the mind” may be close to plausibility or reality, but protagonists and film self-destruct. No seventy-two houri virgins in paradise await these misfit suicidal wannabe martyrs.
(Release by Drafthouse Films and rated "R" for language throughout, including some sexual references.)