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NEW YORK (Reuters) - As the Arab Spring resulted in the deaths of thousands and the ousting of Middle Eastern leaders last year, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, disguised by a fake beard and accent, was filming his latest movie portraying a hated North African dictator.
Was it sheer Hollywood happenstance, calculated irony or comic genius? His co-stars, including Sir Ben Kingsley think the latter, and audiences can decide for themselves on Wednesday when "The Dictator," debuts in U.S. theaters.
Cohen plays fictional General Aladeen, the dictator of a made-up North African country, Wadiya. He is an insecure and idiotic leader who kills for the slightest offenses, believes in discarding female babies and counted North Korea's Kim Jong-Il among his friends.
The actor's brand of comedy is satire, and like his "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" and "Bruno," "The Dictator" means to shed light on racism and stereotyping across cultural boundaries.
Oscar-winner Kingsley, who portrays Aladeen's equally vicious uncle and nemesis Tamir, told reporters that the timing of filming last year during the Arab uprisings can be attributed to Cohen's comedic genius rather than an attempt to capitalize on those events.
"Sacha ... has his finger on so many pulses, politically, socially, which makes him the greatest comedian," Kingsley said. "(The Arab Spring) was present in the media everywhere and that was thrilling for us. We weren't in a vacuum. We were political satirists in a very real and definite context.
Cohen has made several appearances promoting his film but just as he did with "Borat" and "Bruno," he does so only as his character in uniform and typically with an entourage of beautiful women armed with fake machine guns.
"I want to thank the United Nations for their brave inaction over Syria," Cohen, as Aladeen, told reporters at a recent news conference in New York to promote the film. "Thirteen months and still no Security Council resolution. You guys are amazing. You have done next to nothing for the Syrian people, but remember, you can always do less."
To be sure, Cohen's comedy can be fearless and in some circles, it seems provocative. And Kingsley expressed some concern for his safety.
"Sadly, the world is populated by some very strange people. I think that anyone who sticks their head above the parapet takes a certain risk," he said.
Jason Mantzoukas, who plays Nadal, the closest thing Aladeen has to a friend, is less concerned.
Referring to a scene in 2009's "Bruno," Mantzoukas said, "Remember, you're talking about a man who put himself into a cage fight in the south and started having gay sex with someone, which caused a near riot."
In fact, Mantzoukas believes the risk is what makes Cohen's over-the-top comedy work. "Borat," which looked at topics including racism in America, was a smash hit at box offices and raked in more than $260 million. "Bruno," Cohen's look at homophobia, had a global haul of $138 million.
So far, reviews for "The Dictator" are mostly mixed with the movie scoring a 59 percent positive rating at website moviereviewintelligence.com, which aggregates critical reaction.
"One of the things that makes Sacha amazing is he is willing to go to a place that provides a sense of danger that's shocking and surprising," said Mantzoukas. "What makes a lot of it work is the surprise of it, that literally, ‘I can't believe this is happening right now.'"
For his part, Kingsley compared Cohen to one of the most beloved comedic actors ever, silent film star Charlie Chaplin.
Kingsley said "The Dictator" recalled for him, Chaplin's Oscar-nominated performance in 1940's "The Great Dictator" which predated the U.S. involvement in World War Two.
"I feel it's a great privilege for me to be with the Charlie Chaplin of the 21st century," said Kingsley.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Jill Serjeant