'Four Lions'

An audacious premise gets dangerously unstable execution.

An audacious premise gets dangerously unstable execution in “Four Lions,” a ballsy but wobbly high-concept farce that sends up the bumbling schemes of a Blighty-based jihadist cell. TV/radio vet Chris Morris’ raucous debut feature packs its share of explosive laughs (and plain old explosives) but finally misses its presumed target, unable to reconcile the fundamental paradox at its core. Still, this comedy of terrors should generate enough buzz, op-ed interest and Muslim-world controversy to earn considerable theatrical and homevid exposure, particularly among fans of foul-mouthed British laffers.

Pic proceeds from the promising notion that most lads in their 20s and 30s are aimless, incompetent and accident-prone, even if they happen to be Muslim suicide bombers-in-training. In light of the recent failed attempt by 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to set off an explosive aboard a U.S.-bound plane, the time would seem ripe for a topical satire that takes aim at the foibles of the below-average jihadist — and, by extension, the extremist movement he’s trying in vain to serve. (Though just as many may see the pic as tempting fate after the equally farcical failure of airport security.)

There’s something initially refreshing about the way scribes Morris, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain (with additional scripting by Simon Blackwell, one of Armstrong’s collaborators on “In the Loop”) avoid the flat, humorless treatment generally accorded most onscreen terrorists, opting instead for “Keystone Kops”-style irreverence. Living with his wife and young son in an unspecified British city, Omar (Riz Ahmed) is determined to mobilize his band of Muslim brothers: clueless Waj (Kayvan Novak) relies on Omar to think and act for him; Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) is a sad sack who says little and spends his time training crows to fly bombs; and white convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay) is a belligerent renegade as stupid as he is strident.

Morris scores some early laughs from the bickersome group dynamics, which mainly stem from Barry’s attempts to usurp Omar as ringleader (one especially amusing bit involves Barry’s suggestion that they bomb a mosque so as to radicalize the moderates). Some of the gags — such as recurring outtakes from martyrdom videos, some of which include hip-hop — don’t seem all that implausible, and the characters’ off-the-cuff disagreements (often in bouts of Arabic and Urdu) about religious issues, such as women’s rights and the mental state a martyr must achieve to attain paradise, are illuminating enough to bear out the scribes’ considerable research.

But with the exception of serious-minded Omar, these four lions — who eventually add a fifth (Arsher Ali), a young’un way in over his head — rarely rise above exaggerated comic types. And while exaggeration can be a legitimate tool for the humorist, the men’s broadly overplayed idiocy simply doesn’t gel with the pic’s would-be-convincing portrait of the jihadist’s everyday mindset. There’s also the simple fact that while terrorism can be ridiculed like anything else, it isn’t, in the end, really all that funny.

Which, the filmmakers might argue, is precisely the point: You’re supposed to choke on your laughter here, especially when people — and not just crows — actually start to die. But unlike the more polished and effective “In the Loop,” “Four Lions” doesn’t maintain the necessary distance from those it skewers; it seeks to humanize these poor saps (some of them, anyway) even as it mocks them, leaving viewers to bemoan the absurdity of a system that turns young men into killers largely through peer pressure. It’s a provocative notion that needed a smarter movie to support it.

Thesps are all very game, and the pic’s agile lensing and editing are especially impressive in the extended how-will-it-all-end climax, which is set during a marathon and must have been very demanding logistically.

Four Lions

U.K.

Production

A Film4 presentation, in association with Wild Bunch, Optimum Releasing, of a Warp Films production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Mark Herbert, Derrin Schlesinger. Executive producers, Carole Baraton, Peter Carlton, Will Clarke, Caroline Leddy, Angus Aynsley, Mark Findlay, Alex Marshall. Directed by Chris Morris. Screenplay, Morris, Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain; additional writing, Simon Blackwell.

Crew

Camera (color), Lol Crawley; editor, Billy Sneddon; production designer, Dick Lunn; art director, Julie Ann Horan; costume designer, Charlotte Walter; sound (Dolby), Malcolm Hirst; line producer, Rebekah Wray Rogers; associate producers, Afi Khan, Faisal A. Qureshi; visual effects, Framestore; stunt coordinator, Gareth Milne; assistant director, Joe Geary; second unit camera, Simon Tindall; casting, Des Hamilton. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema -- competing), Jan. 22, 2010. Running time: 102 MIN. (English, Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi dialogue)

With

Riz Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak, Adeel Akhtar, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julia Davis, Craig Parkinson, Preeya Kalidas, Wasim Zakir, Mohammad Aqil.

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