Four Lions would like to be scandalous; the best it can manage is being intermittently amusing. British TV satirist Christopher Morris’s comedy about four bumbling jihadists attempting to carry out an attack in northern England is part ironic farce, part politicized treatise, and mostly a snooze, failing except in certain instances to generate prickly live-wire energy as it charts its hypocritical protagonists toward supposed martyrdom.
Leader Omar (Riz Ahmed) lives an average middle-class life with his wife and son, who encourage his efforts to prepare obedient doofus Waj (Kayvan Novak), silent moron Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), and loudmouth Muslim convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay) for a bombing at the heart of a capitalist Western country whose values, wouldn’t-cha-know, they instinctively embrace. Their immaturity manifests itself in contentious squabbling over issues of faith, possible targets, and roles within the group, the latter two coming to the fore thanks to Barry’s inane take-charge suggestion that they “radicalize moderates” by blowing up a mosque. Nonetheless, regardless of their believable stupidity, the foursome, as well as later recruit Hassan (Arsher Ali), remain two-dimensional caricatures. Their hijinks, likewise, are generally of a cartoon variety, as when Omar and Waj visit a Pakistani training camp and accidentally use a rocket launcher to decimate their Arab mates’ outpost (which also housed Osama bin Laden, har har), or during a finale in which the contrast between the terrorists’ aims and their animated-character disguises is somehow meant to elicit chuckles by highlighting the fact that many terrorists are driven by juvenile idiocy.
Morris’s portrait of young, urban Muslim extremists as knuckleheads—prone to rapping their ethos on homemade videos, and dimly manipulating their brethren to achieve their aims—seems plausible enough. Yet given the tepid slapstick and banter that comprises much of his script (co-written with Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain), the material’s insights are often lost amid wan stabs at humor. Those moments abound, be they an accidental bomb detonation that kills not only one of the group but also a goat, a painfully kooky drive to the climactic attack in which all four jihadists sing along to “Dancing in the Moonlight” and, most indicative of the film’s creaky sense of humor, an end-credits video testimony in which Omar decries materialism while Waj demands that a friend repay him 200 pounds.
That Four Lions‘s subjects are incompetent and, in the case of Waj and Hassan, brainwashed followers going along for the ride out of a sense of cultural obligation and peer-pressure loyalty, is intended as a corrective to prevailing stereotypes of terrorists as uniformly trained, skilled and ideologically fanatical. And the cops’ matching ineptitude serves as a jab at counter-intelligence efforts: instead of Omar and company, they raid the home of his overtly conservative brother, and at another point, a sniper is flummoxed over the difference between a bear and a Wookie.
Morris’s satire, though, rarely establishes a consistently witty groove, and in its simultaneous humanizing and mockery of these characters, it finally exhibits a central perspective that’s more confused than ambiguous. A bleak finale proves a last-gasp attempt at crafting a jet-black tone. Morris’s failure to make his topical arguments coherent and hilarious, however, ultimately leaves the film feeling somewhat adrift, dispensing the occasional, shrewd comic bon mot (as when Barry blames his car’s sparkplug breakdown on Jews) but, more frequent still, delivering merely obvious contentions via broad Three Stooges-style shenanigans.