Ike Oden fights terror with genuine chills.
"Spark plugs! Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic."
I've come to dread the year-end top ten lists that every movie buff and their cousin decides to share with the world, be it on blogs, Facebook, or message boards. A film critic must know his or her strengths and weaknesses. Mine is indecision. I know whether or not I love or hate a movie almost immediately through pure gut reaction. Categorizing said films with scores, genre lumping, and listings is a more painstaking process that hinges on content, context, quality, and entertainment.
It gives me great comfort in knowing that, for once, I can revise my 2010 list of favorite films with precise confidence. I missed Four Lions in theaters. Having finally caught it on home video, I feel like I've robbed myself of what could have been an amazing theater experience. The film is not just the best comedy I've seen in years, but one that blows just about every other critical darling out of the water. And the best part? It's about aspiring Islamic suicide bombers.
Facts of the Case
Omar (Riz Ahmed, Centurion), an admirable husband and father, wishes to commit the sort of suicide bombing that will echo his name throughout history. Waj (Kayvan Novak, Syriana) is his dimwitted best friend. Barry (Nigel Lindsay, The Walking Dead) is a backwards-ass revolutionary suppressing strange sexual fetishes. Fessall (Adeel Akhtar, Traitor) is a deranged, if harmless explosive enthusiast. Together, these four British Jihadists will prove their worth as terrorists in the suburbs of England or kill themselves trying.
Barring a few exceptions (Russell Brand, I'm looking at you), the U.K. continues to raise the comedy bar higher and higher with each year. Four Lions hikes it up to a level that is mind-blowing in its complexity.
First and foremost, the film is really, really funny. Veteran comedic talent Chris Morris (The IT Crowd) co-writes and directs the film with brash celluloid confidence that immediately wins you over to the film's awkward, albeit brilliant premise: "What if a group of suicide bombing Jihadists were complete idiots?"
The punch line that follows is 102 minutes of pitch perfect, blacker-than-night comedy that cuts the audience as hard as it does its target. Religious martyrdom is skewered and flayed through quipping dialogue, manic slapstick, and darkly violent set pieces. Morris and company realize one hilarious slice of satire after the next, accentuated by a very realistic cinema-verite approach. The seriousness of Morris's point-and-shoot, handheld approach effectively sinks Four Lions satirical teeth not only into Muslim extremists, but the entire notion of religion in general. While the film's political jabs toward MI-5 and other police organizations feel a bit on the nose, the majority of the film's jokes are jaw dropping in their whip-smart execution. Like the best satire, you'll be dissecting the levels of every joke long after the credits have rolled.
While Morris certainly acquits himself behind the camera, Four Lions is very much an actor's movie. Riz Ahmed brings a sardonic sense humor and genuine warmth to Omar that has us rooting for him despite the fact that he idealizes all of the traits the Western world has come to identify with international villainy. Omar is a confident character whose biggest flaw—a wavering commitment to the ideals of suicide bombing—endears him to the audience, a dangerous balancing act that keeps you cringing throughout. As the straight man of the film, his character arc takes turns that are as dramatic as they are gut busting. Ahmed plays through the many facets of Omar—father, husband, protector, child, idiot—perfectly, making Omar a sympathetic hero at the expense of the audience collective conscious.
Omar is backed up by an ingenious cast of hilariously realized supporting characters. Nigel Lindsay's Barry is the Islamic equivalent to The Big Lebowski's Walter Sobchak, an unhinged man-child whose obsession with leadership is faulted to great effect by his sheer stubbornness to adapt to common sense. Lindsay yells and postures his way through the role charismatically, creating the film's greatest laughs as Omar's over-the-top character foil.
Kayvan Novak represents the film's heart as Waj, Omar's dim witted sidekick whose only real connection to Islamic radicalism is through his best friend. The film establishes his loyalty to Omar firmly during a Pakistani Al-Qaeda training camp session that goes horribly awry. Waj's obliviousness to his friends' constant manipulation comes full circle in the film's jarring climax that brings the audience's discomfort to an emotional peak.
As the fourth (and fifth?) titular lions, Adeel Akhtar and Arsher Ali (Silent Witness) create a fine counterbalance as a mentally unstable man and a poseur college student, respectfully. (Ali's character Hassan, is the late edition to the group, sort of a younger, terrorist Winston Zeddemore). Their characters are foot soldiers from vastly different sides of the tracks, co-opted into a terrorist lifestyle that gets them in way over their heads. While not quite as deeply characterized as their fellow teammates, Ali and Akhtar make striking impressions every moment they're onscreen, giving this Muslim extremist variation on the Marx Brothers many of its most shocking moments.
The DVD itself is above average. The anamorphic video is extremely sharp and clean, complimented by a very strong, highly detailed 5.1 mix that puts surround sound to surprisingly full use. Explosions, gunshots, and other effects come through with realistic depth and clarity. My only complaint is the film's lack of English subtitles, which would help in deciphering the film's thick British/Pakistani accents.
The disc's bonus features do not disappoint. The featurette "Bradford Interview" is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film, featuring some very funny talking head interviews with the filmmakers and cast. It is capped off by about twenty minutes of behind-the-scenes footage that covers a lot of the same material as the featurette, albeit with loosely edited raw footage. Also included is a short documentary, "Lost Boys," about British Pakistani youth not unlike the characters in the film (sans the terrorism aspects). Following the documentary is a short interview with an Islamic youth suspected of terrorism. These features, labeled "Background Information," are taken from the filmmaker's own research archives. Each piece offers a sympathetic portrait of the after-effects of terrorism on middle-class, English Muslims. There are about thirty minutes of deleted and alternate scenes provided, which are about on par with the film itself (though a bit rougher) and certainly worth a watch. A storyboard rounds out the set, along with trailers for other Magnet releases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If Four Lions is the funniest film of 2010, it also makes a strong contender as the bleakest. This is an incredibly dark comedy sporting an ending that will shake you for quite a while to come. If you aren't used to taking a strong dose of quasi-depressing realism with your comedy, then Four Lions might not be the film for you. If, however, you dig on British comedy sensibilities and don't mind a lack of sentimentalism, then you'll derive a great deal of pleasure from Four Lions.
Smart, scathing, hilarious, heart wrenching…there are not enough adjectives to describe Four Lions appropriately. See it for yourself and enjoy one of the most original, thoughtful, and cutthroat funny flicks ever made.
Not guilty, brother.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
• Deleted Scenes
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