Rated R, 102 min. Directed by Chris Morris. Starring Riz Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, Adeel Akhtar.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 5, 2010
This is farce that ain't foolin'. Quite probably the world's first Islamic terrorist comedy – unless, of course, Osama bin Laden spent all that spare time in Tora Bora setting up a mini Ealing Studios – Four Lions at first feels so surreal it begs for some grounding comparison. (A very special episode of The Three Stooges? "Larry, Moe, and Curly Join a Sleeper Cell!") Set in Sheffield, 150 miles north of London, Four Lions details the bumbling efforts of a group of radicalized Muslims who dream of becoming suicide bombers. Initially, it's difficult to place where each man sits on a graph that goes from gentle idiocy to incompetence to imbecility, but they soon come into focus: Faisal (Akhtar) is soft-spoken and maybe soft in the head; Waj (Novak) is dim but puppyishly eager to please; Barry (Lindsay), a white convert, is a bilious fanatic (you get that Allah is the afterthought to his appetite for destruction); and Hassan (Ali), a latecomer to the group, is a wannabe rapper just looking for a community. But de facto leader Omar (played by The Road to Guantanamo's soulful Ahmed) is different: a genuinely politicized and embittered young man who has the most to lose – he has an affectionate wife and son who are supportive of his plans – and also maybe the most assimilated. Omar goes off to training camp in Pakistan early on, to disastrous effect; cut loose from central command, he returns to the UK to organize a homeland strike with his ragtag team, which is fast fissuring with infighting. Four Lions is a riot of physical comedy (there are no words for the sublime effect of four men stutter-running with silver nitrate in plastic baggies), and much of the dialogue is sneakily hilarious in its sheer banality. It might all be hilarious, but a good deal gets swallowed by the thick Yorkshire and Pakistani accents, with no saving subtitles. Director Morris first made a name in British television with edgy political comedy, but here, in his first feature film and co-writing with Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain (who cut their teeth on some of Britain's best Aughties sitcoms, Peep Show and The Thick of It), Morris imperceptibly shifts the film from pure satire to accommodate a more complete and, yes, humanizing portrait of the conflicted jihadis. This is provocative stuff, to be sure, in which the stakes are so high that a pratfall concludes with exploding limbs and the anguished effect of its final minutes is a quiet shock to the system. A comedy of errors and terrors? Who woulda thunk it? (See "Chris Morris Talks Terrorist Comedy" for an interview with the director.)