Set in a post-9/11 and post-London subway bombing Britain, four men plan jihad. They are passionate about their cause, determined to avenge the indignities suffered by their Muslim brothers. That could be the log line for a thriller, except that these terrorist wannabes are idiots, pushing their war against Western civilization far into the realm of farce and satire. Chris Morris' entry into the Sundance Film Festival's World Dramatic competition is as pitch-black as it is hilarious. While the film is likely to find outright rejection among those who remain jittery with each turn in the War Against Terror, it should find a warm reception with fans of dark, outrageous humor.
Omar (Riz Ahmed), the leader of this tiny cell, is the brains behind the outfit, which isn't saying much considering he's surrounded by his pals Waj (Kayvan Novak), who thinks the internet is something that can be blown up; Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), who has mastered bomb making but lacks common sense when it comes to buying materials or experimenting with the finished project; and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a Muslim convert and rage-aholic, who is the most zealous of the four even if the true motivation behind his actions appears to be nothing more than an excuse to commit mayhem.
Morris and his writing partners aim to cover as much as they can of the terrorist experience. And so there is the disastrous trip to the terrorist training camp, experimental dry runs, and a parade of conspiratorial meetings all leading up to - well, never mind that, suffice to say that the pay off is brilliant. And so is the use of King Harvest's 1973 pop hit "Dancing in the Moonlight," the most unlikely of terrorist anthems.
The film's biggest weakness is in the characterizations of Waj, Faisal and Barry, who are all a little too cartoonish. Balancing that is Omar, a character who would work as well in a more serious drama. Smarter than the rest, if not any more capable, a devoted husband and father who nevertheless puts his cause before his family, he cuts an intriguing and - violent deeds aside - likeable figure.
Terrorism is a fact of modern life. There isn't a lot we can do about it, so we may as well laugh about it. Four Lions makes it easy to laugh but not to dismiss either the tragedy of their actions or the wrong-headed intensity of their convictions. And heaven knows it's hard to resist a movie in which die-hard jihadists communicate through a children's social networking site. Puffin Party, indeed.
Distributor: Draughthouse Films
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay, Wasim Zakir and Adeel Akhtar
Director: Christopher Morris
Screenwriter: Christopher Morris, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain
Producers: Mark Herbert and Derrin Schlesinger
Rating: R for language throughout, including some sexual references.
Running time: 97 min
Release date: November 5 ltd.