Terrorism is no joking matter -- and yet the hapless jihadis in Chris Morris' gruesomely hilarious Four Lions had me giggling and laughing out loud at its blend of slapstick and smart bad-taste humor.
This ultra-dark British comedy doesn't joke about the effects of terrorism. Rather, it's a wonderfully sharp-edged satire of the kind of dead-ender who adopts the jihadist pose without truly understanding what he's signed on for.
It starts right from the beginning, with a would-be suicide bomber sitting in front of a video camera to make his farewell statement, trying to affect exactly the right look of serious, death-to-the-West gravitas. Except that the weapon he's holding looks like a toy. "It's because me hands are big," he says. "If I sit closer to the camera, it will look bigger."
Looking at the session's output, the group's leader, Omar (Riz Ahmed), shrugs in frustration and says to his wife, "The whole thing is a blooper reel."
Omar leads a tiny cell of four British-born Muslims -- three of Pakistani lineage, one a militant white-guy yabbo with a serious "more Muslim than thou" complex. His name is Barry (Nigel Lindsay) -- and he's the one who convinces the others that they need to swallow the SIM cards from their cell phones so they can't be tracked. That's a trick that has explosive consequences later in the film.
Omar, however, is the brains of the outfit -- and also the one with an uncle in Pakistan with connections to get him and his best friend and cousin, the large and dim Waj (Kayvan Novak), into an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan. "Are you as dumb as you look?" Omar's uncle asks the uncomprehending Waj in Urdu when they meet.
Not to be outdone, Barry recruits a college student/performance artist (Arsher Ali) to their cell while Omar and Waj are at training camp. The student has just interrupted a forum on Islam with a fake bomb-vest that shot streamers instead of explosives: "The gesture that messed ya," he calls it.
Omar and Waj, it turns out, are training-camp washouts -- but return to London pretending that their mission has been confirmed. So then it's a matter of converting the gallons of hydrogen peroxide they've collected into a bomb and picking a target.
But Morris is less interested in the politics of jihad than the demented attention-craving of these four dunderheads. The give-and-take between them is like a mix of the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello, with a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. Ahmed, as Omar, is the one who seems to have the most to live for, but also the most interest in following correct procedure to get the kind of attention he thinks he deserves. Yet, ironically, he's the one who can't figure out which is the business end of a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher.
A few things this movie doesn't do: It doesn't make sport of Islam or Muslims. It doesn't suggest that terrorists are funny. It does make these clowns into self-defeating bumblers. It does poke fun at police attitudes toward Middle Eastern immigrants.
The accents -- mostly working-class British with a smattering of hip-hop slang -- are definitely thick, though not as impenetrable as they were when I first saw the film at Sundance in January. The soundtrack is definitely more audible -- though it might still help American audiences to have English subtitles for the thick Brit patois.
But if you listen closely, you'll catch the jokes. And there are a lot of them in Four Lions, in places and about things you never thought you'd laugh about