Let’s pretend I hated this movie. A comedy about suicide bombers shouldn’t be difficult to hate. Any attempt to trivialise murder is obviously wrong. There’s also the problem, even if the comedy is successful, that the British Muslim bombers might emerge as caricatures; that the Islamic faith might be mocked; that – even if the director avoids offending victims of suicide bombing – he may grossly offend Muslims. The premise is, frankly, Hell-worthy. Still, some might argue the whole point of comedy is risk. And, contrary to doubts, Four Lions (the new suicide bomber comedy) is frighteningly funny. I, for one, won’t pretend I didn’t laugh.
Four idiots from the north of England decide to mount a terror campaign. They are a lot like the men from The Full Monty (working class, disenfranchised northerners), and their exploits are played for laughs, except, whereas the men in The Full Monty wanted to regain a sense of self-worth by stripping, the men in Four Lions want to regain their self-worth by wearing explosive vests. To this end, two of them will travel to Pakistan to receive terrorist training. One of them will kill a sheep. And all of them will attempt an attack on the London Marathon. At no time will any of them be portrayed less than sympathetically. They are though, clearly, idiots.
Four Lions was directed by a British comedian called Chris Morris. Anyone who thinks Russell Brand is a high-wire act needs to look Chris Morris up. When Brand said – defending himself from criticism of his stand-up – that “tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance”, he may have been channelling Chris Morris (or at least Chris Morris’s solicitor). For years (in Britain), Morris has been synonymous with humour that sees things from a slant. Like most British comedy – most British culture, in fact – Morris likes his ridicule vicious and indiscriminate. Self-deprecation has only evolved as a national character trait among Brits because everyone wants to ridicule themselves before others get the chance. In Four Lions, the sense is that the natural British urge “to take the piss” has usurped all potential fears.
When the leader of the would-be terrorist cell explains martyrdom in terms of jumping the queue at a theme park (“You don’t wanna be standing in the queue…You wanna be on the rides!”); it’s clear this is a very British perspective on radical Islam. The land of terraced housing, low skies and spotted dick wreaks havoc with the romance of death. In the scenes set in Pakistan, the Brits are clearly tourists: they don’t know how to act properly; one of them can’t speak the language; their stay gets cut short by the bazooka-equivalent of a stray punch. This isn’t to say the movie let’s us off the hook for laughing. Death is still death, more cruel than any joke.
You’ll know what I mean if you see the movie with an audience. When a bomb goes off, and someone dies, it’s like every viewer had received a slap. This is the corollary to Chris Morris’s satire of such killers; they still kill. And, where he could have continued the joke (and thereby proved his tactless intensions); instead, he chooses to show realistic explosions. If he hadn’t done this, or if his killers had had a change of heart, the movie would risk soft-pedalling on terrorism. As it is, we know Morris condemns terrorism not only because his characters are fools, but because, foolish as they are: their plans still kill people, and each death comes as a jolt.
The purpose of humour is to say the unsayable. This is different from prejudice or blind stupidity solely in terms of intent. I believe Four Lions was made because, if we say terrorism is off-limits to comedians, then we also say terrorists can dictate how they are to be perceived, and thus hand them a victory. Where the prejudiced comedian would attack race or religion, and the idiot comedian would attack terrorist events, the smart comedian chooses “power” as the target for his satire. If we are too afraid to speak of, or to laugh at terrorists, then they have power over us. In Britain (in fact, the world over), the powerless use comedy to balance the scales.