In the opening scene of “Four Lions,” a group of British would-be terrorists attempt in vain to make the ideal suicide tape. It’s not the first time that such risqué bloopers have been depicted in narrative form – both “Paradise Now” and the short-lived Showtime series “Sleeper Cell” contained similar moments – but it’s certainly the funniest. Chris Morris’s tragicomic portrait of jihad gone awry zips along with many of these contemporary references points in the service of humor, yet pulls off an unlikely feat by avoiding any kind of outright spoof. The characters are no laughing matter; instead, their bumbling tendencies suggest a universal human fragility: The joke is on all of us.
Shot with a handheld documentary style, “Four Lions” contains an engine of rapid-fire dialogue reminiscent of last year’s hit British satire, “In the Loop.” Similar to that movie’s wink-and-nod snapshot of political mismanagement, situational comedy meets a dramatic counterpoint. The quartet of Islamic radicals in Morris’s movie fully believe in the vitality of their mission, which serves to create a grave undertone throughout the story. They seem so likable — so like us! — that the impending possibility of their collective demise creates an almost unbearable tension.
The anchor of the plot involves two jihadists with opposing perspectives: A cool-headed young leader in possession of the intellectual drive to get the job done, and a brutish pundit whose incompetence continually dooms the group’s plans. “I’m the most Al-Qaida of all,” he insists, embodying the pathetic need to belong that often guides blind ideology.
Morris’s brilliant direction notwithstanding, his plot does suffer from a malady similar to the one plaguing the aforementioned pundit. The team fails to center on a target for their imagined violence, and nobody bothers to explain a precise motive. Like “In the Loop,” the specifics are left to viewers’ imagination, but in this case that limits the extent to which their conundrum feels credible. Coupled with a few uneven plot holes (particularly the leader’s ultra-supportive but apparently level-headed wife), “Four Lions” stops just short of becoming a masterpiece.
But it comes *this* close. Morris, a popular British comedian known for his offbeat antics, crafts an unusually endearing chemistry shared by his goofball freedom fighters that harkens back to “The Three Musketeers” in its rudimentary entertainment value, while at the same time delivering a bleak backdrop that informs each scene. Impending doom is rarely this much fun to watch.
Although the director refuses to color in the details of his subjects’ clandestine plot, satire lingers just outside the frame. Morris views terrorism as a complex bureaucratic process comparable to many others, but stops just short of sympathizing with its failed ambitions. Instead, with the barrage of tactical misfires, he implies that the whole system suffers from internal dysfunction. The off-the-cuff dialogue leaves plenty of room for interpretation, but Morris’s overarching perspective is obvious. As the opening scene concludes, the leader makes an astute observation about the unfinished suicide tape: “They’re all bloopers,” he says, perhaps understanding more about his situation than he would like to admit.