Black humor that tracks potentially offensive or controversial subjects such as substance abuse and pedophilia, incest, rape, etc. are the bread and butter of satirist, actor, writer and director Christopher Morris, so it’s really no surprise that his feature-film debut, “Four Lions” lampoons suicide bombers and focuses on a group of inept British Islamic terrorists.
Audacious, wry and absurdly amusing, “Four Lions” is a sharp and subversive little satire that’s a good jab into the humor ribs instead of the rich, winding shot to the solarplexes we were hoping for. There’s also something about it which feels — much like “In The Loop” or many British feature film comedies — a little episodic in nature. Subversive, clever, sometimes hysterical and often entertaining, the comedy’s biggest issue is that it feels fairly slight and like something you’d clearly enjoy on British television, but just as ephemeral. Maybe sometimes we just demand a little more weight to a feature film. Tonally and creatively, it doesn’t feel super different from an episode of something that might star Ricky Gervais.
The film starts out with four buffoonish, but bravura-filled jihadis in Sheffield trying to act bold while taping a pre-suicide bombing boast. The group includes two men struggling for leadership Omar and Barry (played by actor/rapper Riz Ahmed and Nigel Lindsay, respectively), the dumb-as-rocks Waj (Kayvan Novak) and the quiet and nondescript Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) whose main job it seems is to train crows to be suicide bombers (hence the poster). They bicker over tactics, squabble over targets (one of these idiots wants to blow up a local mosque to galvanize the Muslim community) and generally jockey for position over every subject.
At a public forum discussing Islam and Muslims, Barry comes across Hassan (Arsher Ali) the titular fourth lion who replaces Faisal after he accidentally blows himself up (though apparently he still dies a proud martyr’s death for killing some sheep most likely owned by some kind of imperialistic westerner). He’s just what they need, angry, outspoken and idiotic (his introduction is hilarious; essentially accusing everyone of assuming he’s a terrorist because of his skin and appearance and then whipping out a fake bomb in some misguided attempt to prove his point).
Eventually Omar and and Waj get “the call” and are sent to an Al-Qaeda terrorist training camp in Pakistan where they botch every assignment, going so far as shooting a rocket launcher into their own camp. Disgraced and excommunicated, the two return with their tails between their legs, but rather than face up to the boorish Barry who would love to scream “I told you so,” the pair concoct a story that they’ve been given a mission. They eventually decide to blow themselves up during the London Marathon, dressing up in huge animal costumes and strapping bombs to themselves underneath.
Perhaps because of the slapstick visual idea of goons running around in goofy, smiley-looking monster costumes ready to explode this last act certainly sends “Four Lions” to the finish line with its loudest and most outrageous laughs. Again, the main issue with “Four Lions” — don’t get us wrong, mostly a funny little satire with aims that don’t exceed its grasp — is that it feels like something already aired on U.K. TV and belatedly thrown up on the big screen where it doesn’t necessarily belong. The plus side is those who love the U.K. “The Office,” “Little England” and “Alan Partridge” or the subtle wit of various Steve Coogan comedies should be more than happy with what’s offered.
Distinctly British, there’s a goofy jovial-ness to it that you wouldn’t likely see in an American comedy — it’s mocking these idiots, but the humor’s tone isn’t as acidic or black for what superficially feels like a black comedy (a good natured, yet crisp lampooning might be a better descriptor of its tenor; again, see anything Coogan-related with lovable dumbasses). And perhaps part of that tone is what prevents “Four Lions” from containing some sharper piercing; sometimes you wish the film aimed just a little bit higher and had something meaty to say. Not as controversial as it hopes to be, the viewer becomes accustomed to the general mien fairly quickly, “Four Lions” is still a biting, while not condemning — it’s not particularly sardonic or mean-spirited either — little commentary on terrorism, the fear and ignorance it breeds, while mining the innate humor of people dumb enough to blow themselves up for a misguided cause. [B]