The feature directorial debut of Chris Morris depicts a group of bungling suicide bombers and alternates slapstick comedy with sombre satire.
When Four Lions was first announced, this promised to be another taboo-shattering project from one of the most brilliant satirists of his generation. After pioneering work in radio (On the Hour) and television (The Day Today, Brass Eye) which lampooned media and politics with diamond-sharp precision, it seemed like a bold and fascinating prospect.
Set in an unnamed northern town, it centres around four disenchanted young men: Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the unofficial leader and determined to become a martyr for oppressed Muslims around the world; Waj (Kayvan Novak) is an impressionable recruit who does what Omar says; Barry (Nigel Lindsay) is a white Islamic convert obsessed with operational detail; and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) is struggling trying to train crows to fly bombs through windows.
Morris has said that he conducted an enormous amount of research into the subject of Islamic extremism in modern Britain and there are veiled references to the July 7th bombings, the failed attacks of 2007 and other stories of home grown terror since 9/11.
There are many sequences which depict the incompetence of young men trying to cause terror and frequently failing. But perhaps the most interesting thing is how Morris complements their comic idiocy with the shallow despair of front line jihadists trying to find meaning in murder.
The result is an interesting patchwork that falls somewhere between comedy and drama. In terms of Morris’ previous work, it is a long way from the slick ingenuity of The Day Today or Brass Eye and much closer to the creepy discomfort of Jam, the television version of his radio show Blue Jam.
But even these comparisons aren’t exact. If anything, this is a spiritual sibling of In the Loop, another film about the War on Terror, directed by Armando Iannucci who previously worked with Morris on The Day Today.
Although that film focused on the political hypocrisies behind the War on Terror, Four Lions depicts the moral absurdities of the War of Terror.
Where it really hits home is in the relentless focus on the desperation of suicide bombers as they struggle with the moral and practical dimensions of killing themselves for an ideal.
Comedy often arrives in surprising bursts, often involving surreal touches like processed cheese, rap and a group sing-along to Toploader’s Dancing in the Moonlight.
This hilarity is tempered by more ambiguous scenes involving the strange motives of ‘family men’ who think that it is moral to kill innocent people or are just too confused to even tell the difference.
The acting is of a high standard, especially Riz Ahmed in the main role who gives his character a surprising emotional depth despite the buffonery going on in other sections of the film.
Like In the Loop, the script is undercut with a biting intelligence but is less successful than that film in giving a wider context to the motives of the main characters.
There are scenes in the final third that touch upon the security forces response to terrorism but – without giving too much away – they don’t quite paint the rounded picture Iannucci achieved with his film.
Overall this is ultimately a brave and commendable attempt by Morris to tackle a tricky subject. For the most part it works well, but the film where he unleashes his many talents to full effect probably lies somewhere in the future.