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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Four Lions finds the lighter side of terrorism, while avoiding cheap shots

Illustration for article titled Four Lions finds the lighter side of terrorism, while avoiding cheap shots

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Olympus Has Fallen has us thinking about better films about terrorism.


Four Lions (2010)
“Terrorism is about ideology, but it’s also about berks.” That’s one of the ways a widely distributed email explained Chris Morris’ black comedy Four Lions, in an attempt to crowd-fund the film. It had proved difficult to secure financing through conventional channels: After all, Morris was trying to make a farce about terrorism, with a bunch of hapless suicide bombers stumbling over themselves, squabbling, acting like twits—and successfully killing innocents in the process. Morris’ point, as he clarified in interviews, wasn’t to defang terrorism by mocking it or making it ridiculous; it was to get at the reality that young, uneducated men operating in groups tend to be fractious and sloppy, driven by ego, machismo, and rivalries that can outpace common sense. Morris was inspired in part by a terrorist cell that planned to ram a U.S. warship, but failed when the plotters filled their boat with explosives—and sank it. He felt the image of terrorists as cool, emotionless, flawless adversaries was overblown: “The more I looked, the more reality played against type.”

The movie itself is ramshackle, with mildly fuzzy, bland digital cinematography and a overcrowded storyline that’s more about hitting goofy comic moments than telling a consistent story, or getting at the characters’ humanity. But it’s funny throughout, because of the amiable-stupid performances and because its sheer audacity is startling, exciting, and cathartic. Morris and his British comedy veteran co-writers—Peep Show co-creators Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, and In The Loop writer Simon Blackwell—shoot for a wacky, lively comedy packed with incident, but without forgetting that their protagonists are out to kill and maim other people. Their plot focuses on a handful of young British Muslim jihadists planning their suicide runs, but finding their own doofus mistakes and pretentions get in the way; some of them are sincere believers who want to make a forceful impact on British society, but none of them are competent or confident enough to get the job done. The film navigates a subtle, dangerous course between extremes. It risks losing the audience by sympathizing with terrorists, but turning them into shallow cartoons in order to laugh at them would seem smug, dismissive, and self-satisfied in the face of a serious problem. Instead, the filmmakers offer it as a corrective to a chilling stereotype, and an invitation to be less afraid of terrorists, in order to prevent terrorists from winning.

Availability: Available on DVD or Blu-ray from Magnolia. Streams at Amazon and Netflix. Available for digital purchase or rental from a variety of services.