An outrageously dark comedy, “Four Lions” makes light of one of today’s most prominent and pervasive cultural phobias: Islamic suicide bombers. However, the film’s smart, restrained writing and unexpectedly heartfelt ending keeps it from being exploitative.
Focusing on a motley crew of suicide bombers, “Four Lions” is co-written by director Chris Morris (who shares the writing credit with Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong). The script is a potent mix of non-sequiturs, hilarious bits of dark comedy and moments of sharp satire.
However, the script is marred by some weak character work. Morris, faced with the challenge of making jihadists relatable characters, gives his lead, Omar (perfectly played by Riz Ahmed), a three-dimensional role and casts those around him as a hilariously inept group of misfits who give the Three Stooges a run for their money. While the other characters are entertaining, the lack of humanity to them gives the film a soulless quality, creating a sharp contrast to the handful of scenes Omar shares with his family, which are among the best in the film.
Morris tackles the material with an enthusiastic aplomb, creating several effective set pieces that manage to be both funny and tense, often dealing with the sensitive nature of bomb-making. Morris also handles the dark subject matter diplomatically, keeping things tasteful and sanitized while managing to work in a few pointed jabs at Islamic culture.
The acting is admirable, with Riz Ahmed saddled with the unenviable task of making the audience care about and sympathize with a jihadist and pulling it off with flying colors. The supporting cast makes the most of their flat characters, with everyone displaying perfect comedic timing and even pulling off the film’s handful of dramatic moments. Highlight Nigel Lindsay is a consistent scene stealer as Barry, the sole white bomber and the most deluded out of all the characters. Lindsay is fantastic, all bluster and self-conviction, even as it becomes clear that his plans are beyond awful.
The film’s final act is a marked departure from what came before it, as the team finally embarks on their terrorist attack. While Morris keeps the laughs coming, they’re uncomfortable, nervous chuckles, and the film transforms into something of a tragedy. The poignancy of the ending came as a surprise relative to the film’s first hour, but the ending feels honest to what came before it, and is chilling and effective.
“Four Lions” is a film with weak characters populating a strong story. It’s a triumph with more on its mind than cheap laughs — the rare comedy that reaches for a surprisingly social relevance and sticks the landing.