“I guess when everybody shut up, like, ‘he’s never going to make a film’ – then I’ll make a film and, ‘oh! It’s a comedy about jihadists.” – Chris Morris
Once upon a time, two brothers – a pair of Islamic-fundamentalist terrorists – hatched a plot to kill a Saudi royal prince in a suicide-bombing attack. Their chosen methodology was ingeniously simple: an explosive-loaded anal-suppository rather than a cumbersome dynamite belt, all the better to ensure that the martyr-to-be could approach his target unmolested.
Luckily for the prince, neither brother was an explosives expert. Upon detonation, rather than exploding outward the blast discharged, downward, propelling the Jihadist through the roof with a rectal blast like a human bottle rocket.
Admit it: That’s really funny.
I learn this story from British comic/satirist Chris Morris of Brass Eye infamy. He, in turn, learned it as part of the research for his alarming, disturbing and scathingly hilarious new movie Four Lions, which approaches the time-tested subgenre of “stupid criminal” comedies from a dark, of-the-moment angle. Instead of bumbling bank robbers or comically inept hitmen, its villain protagonists are a uniformly idiotic Muslim terrorist cell living in suburban Sheffield.
Morris made a name for himself in the realm of fearless, pitch-dark social satire on British TV, but took a long time getting around to the feature film game, waiting for the right project. While researching the subject of terrorism, and lesser-known failed plots in particular, in the wake of the London Subway Bombing, Morris seems to come to the realization that a lot of these guys are just dumb.
“The human failings you recognize keep undermining the image we’ve built up. That was interesting, and I figure what’s interesting must be funny.” – Chris Morris
Unless you’re a dedicated seeker of “the story behind the story,” you generally only hear about two kinds of terrorist attacks: Successful attacks or attacks that “fail publically” (think the recent attempted car-bombing at Times Square.) Invariably, the failures of jihadists are described as having been “foiled” – terminology that conjures images of battle-ready superheroes like 24‘s Jack Bauer kicking down doors and diffusing warheads at the last possible moment.
But a deeper scan of military and intelligence records often paint a different picture, that of an enemy whose biggest impediment is its own membership – hordes of dim-witted, poorly-educated dopes with very little grasp on strategy or bomb making, and even less grasp on the actual tenets of the beliefs they’re supposedly martyring themselves for.
The cell in the film, for example, isn’t actually affiliated with any particular terror organization (their “audition” for Al Qaeda doesn’t go very well) or even with any tangible branch of Islam. The members certainly aren’t fundamentalists themselves, enjoying the fruits of Western decadence one moment then tripping over themselves to criticize assimilation the next (“Fuck mini Babybell!” blurts one, making individually-wrapped cheese snacks the object of his ire.) We don’t see them pray, or go to mosque – and the nominal “leader” Omar is scorned for his jihadist views by his brother, an actual fundamentalist who’s dedicated to peace (and, ironically, is under much more police scrutiny than Omar the full-fledged terrorist).
Like the rest of his men, Omar doesn’t really have much grasp of his own professed religion, and seems to have arrived at jihad as a kind of warped heroic fantasy (he attempts to justify/explain his outlook to his son via a tortured metaphor about The Lion King.) His friend Feisal appears to be mentally-handicapped – in place of a Koran, he carries a preschool reader called The Cat Who Went To Mecca and imagines an afterlife of amusement park rides instead of virgins. Boisterous Barry is probably even less theologically sound, the sort of blustery moron who’d find a way to make trouble no matter what ideology he subscribed to. Another wants to train crows as avian suicide bombers, and still another seems to see jihad as “street cred” for his hip-hop career.
That Western civilization may have found itself at war with a foe who’ve more in common with The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight than S.P.E.C.T.E.R. can’t possibly serve to lessen the lingering pain of 9/11 and the like, and the film takes great care to affirm the insane horror of suicide bombing even as it makes a mockery of the men plotting it. Nevertheless, it’s inevitable that it will always be “too soon” for someone, and despite making a big splash at Sundance, Lions initially failed to find a U.S. distributor. Salvation came from Tim League, proprietor of both the Alamo Drafthouse and its new venture as a full-fledged film distributor.
“I was reading into the subject anyway, and things kept popping up that were ‘funny in the wrong place,’ y’know?” – Chris Morris
If you follow the internet movie geek scene even casually, you’ve probably heard of League (and of his new business-buddy Devin Faraci, who runs Alamo’s Badass Digest and likely know that he goes all-in when he’s got a film he wants to help be seen. Along with picking up Four Lions, he and Faraci have brought Morris stateside for a promotional interview tour – which is where the quotes from this article (and that opening story) have come from.
Morris, in spite of his reputation as a button-pushing satirist, is a friendly and genial fellow in person, giving off no air of stress or annoyance at having had to traverse Boston’s Cambridge area – which I can tell you from frequent firsthand experience is one of the most obnoxiously-unnavigable urban layouts in America. He seems genuinely relieved to hear that the film is being warmly received, and he’s happy to indulge my opening “dumb question” (my words, not his) about how he managed to clear the use of copyrighted characters like Raphael the Turtle or The Honey Monster in a scene where the Lions don costumed disguises (apparently, it wasn’t much hassle).
“Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, did a TV interview … wasted four hours looking for an outfit that didn’t make him look fat. He kept blurting out Koranic quotes, getting them totally wrong.” – Chris Morris
Exploring the psyche of villainy through comic mockery isn’t new, and neither is going to dark and all-too-current places to do it. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator brutally parodied Hitler before the U.S. entered WWII, the kids of South Park were off to Afghanistan to take their shots at Osama bin Laden almost as soon at the real-life military was, and the sole redeeming gag of David Zucker’s embarrassingly awful Republican-aimed spoof An American Carol featured Robert Davi as the leader of comic relief Al Qaeda goons. But, as we all know (and as I’m sure I’ll be sternly reminded in the feedback), this is different. Comedy regarding terrorism, even in this context where the terrorists themselves come in for (pardon the pun) the lion’s share of the comic takedowns, is a dicey prospect given how broad its potential effects and its connection to at least two ongoing wars.
In the end, that’s understandable. But I’m also of the opinion that, even in cases such as these, declaring certain evils off limits to be joked about gives them more power than they deserve. The overriding point of Four Lions (well, one of them anyway) is that Al Qaeda and all the other various permutations of terrorism and jihad and whatever else it wants to call itself might not be the impressive, all-powerful force it wants its targets to imagine it is. It succeeds in humanizing its characters much moreso than almost any serious film on the subject ever has, but it does so in the service of knocking them down, not building them up. It looks The Enemy in the eye and says “Yeah, you can be scary. But you can also be a bunch of morons mucking around with weapons you can’t use for a cause you don’t even grasp. You’re silly. You’re pathetic.”
Sometimes, bravery is shooting the bad guy. Other times, bravery can also be flipping him the bird.
(Four Lions is now playing in limited release in the United States.)
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.