Chris (‘Brass Eye’) Morris’ directorial debut about four hapless, northern Muslim suicide bombers was always sure to offend. It pokes fun at one of the most sensitive political subjects of our time – radical Islam, but unlike Armando Iannucci’s superior ‘In The Loop’ (attacking the inept launch of the ‘war’ on terror) it doesn’t have enough bite. The increasingly impressive Riz Ahmed plays Omar, a family man hell bent on jihadi martyrdom, who relies on a rag tag bunch of friends to bring about his attack on the British oppressors. The slow-witted Kayvan Novak, Adeel Akhtar, Arsher Ali and the hilarious Nigel Lindsay all join in his conspriacy of the inept, and much of the first half of the film is based on their gently comic bumblings. They play at terrorism, even going so far as travelling to a terrorism training camp in Pakistan, but have far more to say about pop music in their martyrdom videos than anything political.
The film comes alive in the second half, when the conspirators find there are real consequences to their plotting. It’s not just a jolly jape with nutters in the desert – they will die and people will die with them, and although the satire (largely provided by Lindsay’s excellently-mannered caucasian convert) mostly hits the mark, much of the narrative does not. If Ahmed’s band is largely the comic foil to his serious bomber, Omar needs to be far better investigated than Morris allows him to be. It’s clear that his family is fully aware of his plan and its consequences, and the co-writer/director throws up other tantalising questions about the Westernisation of his friends, but these are insufficiently explored issues (despite an outstanding performance by Ahmed) which take some serious bite out of the brilliant satirical sketches. You get the feeling that a really important idea has been attempted – particularly when Omar changes his mind far too late, but because the film can’t decide whether it’s a satire, a screwball comedy or a Working Title film with an edge, the ending leaves you wanting better explanations than those on offer.
Morris clearly wants to suggest the suicide attacks in the UK were largely caused by bumbling idiots who were in over their heads and didn’t quite grasp the enormity of their actions, but that’s not quite enough. Morris’ characters are fully integrated into Western society, all loving pop culture – Omar is well-to-do with a family – and it remains unclear from ‘Four Lions’ what led him to plan his suicide attacks. We only get brief glimpses into his political life, from his connections in Pakistan, to his alienation from the Islam of his neighbourhood, and indeed the irony of its persecution by the British state, leaving us with a film which is occasionally very funny but without enough dots presented for us to join up with real satisfaction.