Director: Chris Morris
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Adeel Akhtar, Kayvan Novak, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay
"Can I have 12 bottles of bleach please?" You'd expect something a little more offensive from a Chris Morris film about terrorism. But as the feckless Fessel (Akhtar) reveals his strategy for acquiring flammable liquids, he's anything but offensive. He's actually quite nice. Four Lions, the directorial debut from the man behind The Day Today and the controversial Brass Eye, plays out as a likeable and conventional buddy comedy. But that makes it even more incendiary.
The Lions are an incompetent terrorist cell based in Sheffield. Omar (Ahmed) is the focussed leader, backed up by his stupid lieutenant Fessel and the even more clueless Waj (Novak). Completing the group is Barry (Lindsay), a white convert to Islam who makes up for his nationality with a mindless ferocity and lots of swearing: "I'm the invisible Jihadi! They seek him here, they seek him there, but he's at home blowing up your slag sister!"
Planning some kind of attack - something explosive involving bleach - the Lions blunder through life in a haze of optimism. At one point, Omar and Waj make it over to a Pakistan training camp to become fully fledged Mujahideen. One encounter with a bazooka later, they return home to find a new recruit of Barry's extreme evangelism, Hassan (Ali), a kid who likes to rap about blowing stuff up: "I'm the Mujahideen / and I'm making a scene / I am a Martyr / you're just squashed tomatoes".
As we see their crazy schemes (like timed C-4 attached to crows) come to fruition and inevitably fail, it's hard not to fall in with the group's easygoing banter and earnest passion. Caught between their fledgling beliefs and the society they've grown up in, they describe one in terms of the other. Omar simplifies suicide for Waj to understand: "Do you want to be waiting in the queue at Alton Towers? Or riding the rubber dinghy rapids?" "Rubber dinghy rapids!" comes the happy reply.
Unavoidably conflicted, these extremists are just like everyone else in Chris Morris' world: confused idiots. It's a brave brush stroke to paint terrorism with, but the sheer incompetence of these men doesn't mark them out as laughable, scary or alien. They're just human.
To put that message across requires some stark shifts in tone throughout Four Lions' runtime. The jokes don't fly as fast as you'd like, but when they do come they often showcase side-splitting bursts of wit. It's not as consistent as Iannucci's accomplished In the Loop, but Four Lions' topical commentary is bold enough to conjure up sympathy as well as laughter. And that's largely possible thanks to the cast's downright charming performances - after Shifty and Centurion, Riz Ahmed really gets the chance to cement his acting credentials.
Fleshing out family relationships and friendly power struggles, Four Lions' good-natured, shambling tone builds to a harrowing finale, which ramps up the farce to wreak an explosive run round the London Marathon. Silly costumes, hostage situations and clueless cops (hello, Benedict Cumberbatch) all combine to bring things to a halt in the way that Barry concludes one of the film's major philosophical arguments: with a demented and provocative punch to the face.
An amiable and challenging piece of cinema, Four Lions is a fine achievement for Chris Morris: he has created a Dad's Army for the 9/11 generation.