When asked about the making of “Four Lions” first-time feature director Chris Morris (“The IT Crowd”) said that his intent was to make his film “scary but also ridiculous.” Had this film, a comedy of terrors featuring four homicidal Muslim extremists set loose in Sheffield, England, been made in America (which wouldn’t have happened anyway) it would have simply been outlandish. Morris’s unwillingness to relegate his film entirely to the realm of absurdity makes it both more powerful and, surprisingly, funnier.
Omar (Riz Ahmed) is a disaffected Muslim living with a wife and son in Sheffield, England. Though his life and surroundings are assuredly Westernized, Omar nurses a vague desire to become a martyr and puts a slapdash plan together to bomb something. Joining him on what is sure-to-be a disastrous mission are his friends Waj (Kayvan Novak) and Barry, a hilarious white radical convert (Nigel Lindsay).
Eventually, the crack team of bombers is formed but no one can seem to agree on a plan or accomplish much of anything. In the course of the film a crow and a sheep are blown up accidentally, Barry plots to bomb his own mosque, and the band races around London in furry costumes tying to sneak into the London Marathon. Add some snappy dialogue and Brit-styled slapstick (things move more slowly but the payoff is just as worthwhile) and you’ve got an outstanding comedy for the times.
“Four Lions” won a BAFTA (British Academy of Film & Television Arts; Britain’s Academy Awards) for Outstanding Debut by a British Director and it’s easy to see why: once you get over the initial shock of seeing jihad as fodder for comedy, it becomes clear that the subject is ripe for satire.
Unlike “Borat” which exploits similar stereotypes along the same leitmotiv (there’s the civilized West and then there’s everyone else), “Four Lions” manages to get several points across. In addition to lampooning jihadists for what they are, “Four Lions” pokes fun at xenophobia and chauvinism, too. And by doing so, director Chris Morris succeeds in exorcising the film of its risque subject matter far more effectively than had its story had been reduced to a one-dimensional, laugh-a-minute premise.
Opens November 4 in limited release — Available on Blu-Ray and DVD on August 30. Currently available via Netflix.