The daring is all in the concept
Can terrorism be funny? More specifically, can a slapstick farce about a group of bumbling wannabe jihadists deliver the bellylaughs to make good on its bad taste? In theory, yes, but it had better be more certain about its aims than “Four Lions,’’ a brazenly comic, fatally inconsistent romp that tries to destroy radical fundamentalism with ridicule.
Director Chris Morris and his co-writers, all veterans of British TV, have a way with cheeky dialogue, and their characters are an amusing gang of idiots. Because Omar (Riz Ahmed), a part-time security guard with a loving wife and child, is the only one with any brains, he’s the cell’s default leader, and he alternates between slow burns and torrents of incredulous invective. A scene in which he and big, dumb Waj (Kayvan Novak) accidentally reduce a terrorist training camp to rubble (they point the rocket launcher the wrong way) sets the tone. It’s “Abbott and Costello Join the Mujahideen.’’
The group also includes Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), a sacrificial boob, and Hassan (Arsher Ali), who thinks he can bring down the West with cretinous rap lyrics. The most pointedly satiric figure is Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a rotund Anglo imam whose every breath is devoted to proving he’s more fanatical than thou. Barry is a great character — the firebrand who can’t abide his own whiteness — and his rants have the aggravating circular logic of the truly deluded.
The movie pits radical Muslim resolve against time-tested British incompetence; guess which wins. After early bomb experiments go awry (a shame about the sheep), the group settles on a local charity run as a target, which requires the characters to dress in resplendently silly costumes packed with explosives.
At this point, the inherent contradictions start pulling “Four Lions’’ apart. Given our knowledge of real events, do we really want things to go boom, and if so, at whom? Having invested even a little sympathy in these genially lethal clowns, do we root for their survival or their deaths? And why is the level-headed Omar even involved? What’s his beef?
That refusal to specify the characters’ anger, even for purposes of parody, robs the movie of its sting and renders the climax an off-putting tonal mishmash. “Four Lions’’ is scaldingly comic in its individual scenes and characterizations (Novak’s hulking Waj really is endearing) but toothless in its larger strokes; it lampoons terrorists without tackling the mindset that creates them. Real satire must be savage, and “Four Lions,’’ for all its daring, finally doesn’t dare enough.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.