Omar (Riz Ahmed) leads a small terrorist cell in suburban England. While he and his cousin Waj (Kayvan Novak) travel to Pakistan to train in an Al Qaeda camp, their friend Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) tries to train crows to carry bombs while the antagonistic Barry (Nigel Lindsay) decides to recruit activist and amateur rapper Hassan (Arsher Ali) to their cause. When Omar and Waj return from Pakistan in disgrace, the group refocuses their efforts on staging a suicide bombing in London.
Writer/director Chris Morris spares no punches in his 2010 satire Four Lions, which deftly aims at two targets simultaneously before nailing them both. On the one side he showcases and emphasises the sheer stupidity of suicide bombers. On the other he aggressively skewers the British police for essentially not knowing the difference between a radicalised terrorist and peace-affirming Muslim. It is a savagely funny comedy, although in the best satirical tradition it actually gets rather serious and provocative where it counts. It is easily one of the best British comedies of the past decade.
Morris has established a long and successful career in social satire, most notably through television projects like Brass Eye and The Day Today. It is no surprise to see he developed the latter series with fellow satirist Armando Iannucci, since in terms of tone and presentation Four Lions feels remarkably similar to Iannucci’s 2009 film In the Loop. Throughout his career Morris has been quick to provoke and challenge his audience, and it is no surprise to see him wilfully touching the ‘third rail’ of comedy: Islam and terrorism. This is not a cheap, scattershot work: Morris reportedly spent three years researching Four Lions, consulting with everyone from police representatives and terrorism experts to local imams. The end result is a film that rings truthfully, while still managing to be regularly and enormously funny to watch.
At the film’s centre is Omar, played excellently by Riz Ahmed (now much more famous than he was here, thanks to Rogue One). He is an immediate and troubling contradiction. He will hang out with his friends to form ideas and plans for the perfect suicide bombing, or he will travel all the way to Pakistan to learn how to become a better terrorist, and at the end of each day he will go home to a loving wife (a nicely understated Preeya Kalidas) and a young son. He does not hide his suicidal aspirations from his wife; indeed she actively supports them, all the while joking and living together in the most everyday fashion one could imagine. It is a really challenging aspect of the film, because we instinctively expect a man like Omar to keep his plans a secret. It emphasises how much he is, at heart, an ordinary man. I think Morris is saying something genuinely important here about the identity of rogue terrorists in the West.
The vast bulk of the humour comes instead from the film’s supporting characters. Omar’s terrorist cell are visibly incompetent, and regular hypocritical. They prepare to stage attacks on what they decry as decadent Western values while actively engaging with those values all the time. They listed to Western music. They eat Western food. They visibly inhabit the very same culture that they long to destroy. They are also remarkably stupid whether it’s Barry, a white man whose late conversion to radicalised Islam has made him over-emphasise his terror aspirations to ridiculous extremes, or Faisal, an actual idiot whose terror plans involve strapping small explosives to crows and training them to fly into their targets.
Some of the harshest satire in the film is directed at the London police. They are presented as fundamentally incapable of knowing the difference between Muslims and terrorists, and what is more it seems like they do not even care if there is a difference. They are also wildly incompetent, failing to notice obvious criminal activity in front of their faces and almost incessantly shooting the wrong suspect when their guns get drawn. There is even a wildly funny cameo towards the film’s conclusion that just lifts the incompetence to a fresh level.
When the film reaches its climax – an attempted suicide bombing of the London city marathon – the jokes suddenly feel a lot less funny. The ‘four lions’ of the title begin to doubt their own intentions. It’s clearly an intentional shift in the film, and an extraordinarily powerful one. In the end Four Lions does not simply condemn and ridicule terrorism; it successfully makes its audience feel sorry for the individual terrorists. It feels like more than a brilliantly funny comedy, and it is that. It also feels like an socially important film as well.