For his debut film, Four Lions, English broadcaster and funny man Chris Morris deploys satire and ridicule as his primary weapons in the War on Terror. Four Lions' premise, played straight, could suit an episode of a post-9/11 espionage series like "24" or MI:5 by following a cell of Islamist would-be terrorists conspiring in England.
Four Lions doesn't depict the kind of sleeper cell that could bedevil Jack Bauer, however. They brainstorm ideas for attacks like blowing up "the Internet" or strapping explosives to crows and launching them at such strategic targets as "a sex shop or the U.S. embassy." Four Lions presents hilarious slapstick set pieces as the group stumbles from Pakistani training camp to an ill-fated mission at a major London event.
Morris and his co-writers don't attempt to present the consequences of terrorism, but more narrowly reveal some of the inane motivations behind their actions. Most of the main characters are young, underemployed men raised in Britain who perceive "jihad" as a fad and a form of celebrity. Being a martyr might even be better than becoming a rap star or a professional athlete. Some of them aren't even particularly religious: Omar (Riz Ahmed), the smartest of the group, teases his brother for being too devout to stay in the same room as a woman.
Among Omar's comrades, the true believer is Barry (the uproarious Nigel Lindsay), a raging Cockney more militant than the rest put together — despite being a white convert to Islam. Barry embodies potential terrorists' habit of demonizing the scapegoats for social problems. When Barry's car breaks down, he snaps it must be the fault of the "Jewish" auto parts.
Without Omar's leadership, the group would probably do nothing more than videotape rambling manifestos and engage in annoying pranks, like sending a Twin Towers-shaped cake to the local synagogue on the anniversary of Sept. 11. At one point, the more thick-skulled members engage in "anti-surveillance" measures by shaking their heads back in forth in public, so they'll look blurry if they're being photographed. The ensemble masters a distinctly British kind of banter, alternately deadpan and apoplectic, comparable to In the Loop and the comedies of Steve Coogan and the Mighty Boosh.
Four Lions finds humor in the fact that most of the group's destructiveness tends to be self-inflected. As the film progresses, however, the prospect that innocent people could be hurt becomes increasingly plausible. The team might be idiots, but they could still be dangerous. Omar's friendship with Waj (Kayvan Novak), the most dim-witted of the bunch, gradually makes him pay attention to the moral implications of his leadership.
The film's endgame only stumbles a little as it balances serious themes with slapstick: elements in the group's ultimate plan include homemade explosives and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume. Four Lions finds room to attack indiscriminate anti-Muslim profiling, but generally goes for laughs in its portrayal of selfish, shallow and misdirected lives. Some terrorists are neither monsters nor freedom fighters, just dumb guys who think it's cool to blow stuff up and get themselves killed.