“These are real bad times, bro,” laments Barry, one of the bumbling would-be terrorists in the daring satire Four Lions. “Islam is cracking up. We got women talking back! We got people playing stringed instruments! It’s the end of days!”
Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a convert to Islam, is the most belligerent and radical of the gang — the Moe in this pack of dangerous stooges. He brags about being “the most Al-Qaeda” of the group and comes up with the brilliant plan of bombing a mosque, so as to radicalize moderate Muslims and launch a global uprising.
Even dumber are Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who is strapping explosives to crows and training them to be suicide bombers; Waj (Kayvan Novak), who can’t tell chickens from rabbits (“They’ve cut off their ears!”) and carries around a children’s book, The Cat Who Went to the Mosque, and Hassan (Arsher Ali), the youngest and newest member of the cell, who has taken to terrorism the way suburban kids take to gangsta rap.
The only member of the outfit with any brains is Omar (Riz Ahmed), who is resourceful enough to land an invitation to join a mujahideen training camp in Pakistan (although he’s still dumb enough to fire a rocket launcher backwards, accidentally rubbing out Osama Bin Laden). Omar is happily married and has a young son, whom he regales with bedtime tales of The Lion King re-imagined as a tale of jihad. Early in the film — when Omar shows his family bloopers from his gang’s most recent terrorist video, and everyone chuckles and laughs warmly, as if they were watching home movies — director Chris Morris sets a satirical tone that is simultaneously funny and unnerving.
Morris, who wrote the script with Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (In the Loop), sets the film in Northern England and mercilessly mocks every segment of that society — not just violent fundamentalists but also the government authorities who chase them (and can’t tell a Wookie from a bear) and the non-Muslim neighbors who fail to notice their highly suspicious antics (a woman who lives in the apartment building where the group is headquartered writes them off as odd gay men). The film wisely doesn’t try to explore the roots of religious fanaticism and how it can manifest as murder: Instead, it simply accepts the world as it is and focuses on the ridiculous.
For most of Four Lions, the emphasis is on humor in all its varieties, from slapstick to absurdity to old-fashioned wordplay (Faisal’s demonstration of the voices he uses to disguise himself, including those of an IRA soldier and a woman, is particularly amusing). But as the movie reaches its climax, and the idiots proceed with their plan to detonate themselves during the London Marathon while wearing cartoonish disguises, a palpable tension suddenly takes over.
Despite their nefarious intent, you grow to like these characters — particularly Waj, an endearingly stupid oaf — and Morris doesn’t take the easy way out of this dilemma. Instead, he bravely follows Four Lions to its natural conclusion, and while the humor never stops flying, the laughter becomes more brittle. This is a comedy about imbeciles who fall blindly in love with a concept, without giving any thought to what they are doing. And although some of them eventually have a moment of self-realization, it arrives, sadly, much too late.
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, Adeel Akhtar, Preeya Kalidas.
Director: Chris Morris.
Screenwriters: Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain.
Producers: Mark Herbert, Derrin Schlesinger.
A Drafthouse Films release. Running time: 100 minutes. In English and Urdu with English subtitles. Vulgar language, brief violence, adult themes. Plays Thursday-Sunday in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema.