The ‘four lions’ of the title are a group of (loosely defined) friends from Sheffield; British Muslims driven by a mixture of idealism, religious conviction, anger, idiocy and a pitiful desire to fit in, who decide to pursue martyrdom by becoming suicide bombers. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the brains of the outfit, trying to do what he sees as the right thing in extreme circumstances; Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a thuggish, paranoid convert to Islam (possibly from football hooliganism) is more intent on causing as much damage as possible to anyone and everyone, while the other would-be terrorists are a rag-bag of vulnerable wannabes and simpletons.
The characters are desperately two-dimensional, but this isn’t necessarily a flaw, as the film stands up well as modern allegory, with each straw personality representing something more complex: the agitator, the peaceful religious scholar, the good wife, the ingénue. It’s a quick-fix route to sympathy, if not understanding, and it provides a sufficiently robust vehicle on which to wheel out the jokes. And they’re good jokes, raising interesting questions – fifth-rate terrorists in the hands of Voltaire. Structurally, the film works pretty well; the characters are consistent, the jokes are carried through, and the constant awareness that these incompetents are juggling huge amounts of explosives has you very much on the edge of your seat.
I’m firm in the belief that no subject should be exempt from ridicule. Comedy may be tasteless, cruel, devoid of artistic merit, ill-timed, ill-judged or just plain unfunny, and its subjects ever so sensitive or deserving, but we’d still be the poorer for stifling it. In spite of the tricky subject, Four Lions is not so much provocative, as very funny, and very, very sad. In a certain sense, the message of the film seems to be that people are idiots, but not terribly bad, really. Terrorists (in all their different manifestations) are stupid, coppers are benevolently daft, and incidental characters are invariably foolish. No matter what your walk of life, you and your kind will not escape ridicule in Morris’ world, but, unlike many other comedy writers who earn a crust by taking a pop at anything and everything that comes within view, Morris, Armstrong and Bain manage to do it with a certain sweetness and understanding which, weirdly, ends up rather reinforcing a positive view of human nature. Potential killers are hapless rather than evil; suicide bombers love their families; policemen, like all of us, struggle to distinguish between a bear and a wookie at fifty metres – and everyone is bound together by the pitiful minutiae of daily life: cars that break down, the grind of a dead-end job, half-hearted football in the rain, cheesy music. Somehow, if the common picture is so unglamorous, it’s much easier to believe it, and if we’re all so similar under the skin, can there really be much to be afraid of?