'Four Lions': Lighthearted take on the dark topic of terrorism

Fanaticism gets the farce treatment in Four Lions, director Chris Morris' whopping strange and incendiary comedy about a band of bumbling British jihadists.

When it works - and it doesn't half the time - it's as if Monty Python were back, putting its merrily imbecilic stamp on the dark world of terrorism.

This is brave turf to tread, and you have to give it to Morris (in his directing debut) and his cowriters for lampooning a life choice designed to end in death. Yes, the titular heroes are would-be suicide bombers, radical Muslims from Sheffield who plot to blow themselves up during the London Marathon.

But first, there are video messages to record (and a discussion about the blooper reel), a training camp in Pakistan to attend (where a rocket launcher gets fatally, and comically, misfired), and quality time to spend with the wife and kid (a new twist on a bedtime reading of The Lion King).

Four Lions premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and played at the recent Philadelphia Film Festival, and it has its ardent fans. It's a portrait of twits in taqiyahs, morons in Muslim robes, and it pushes the envelope of what might be considered political correctness into a whole other dimension.

Four Lions can't exactly be called racist, or xenophobic, or anti-Quran, because just about everybody comes off as inept and intellectually challenged. Omar (Riz Ahmed) may be the most earnest of the lot, but he's no bright bulb, and Waj (Kayvan Novak) literally cannot tell a chicken from a rabbit. Barry (Nigel Lindsay) is an Anglo convert to the cause, so his rhetoric and rage are amped up several decibels above his colleagues'. (Barry's scheme is to blow up a mosque and make it look like it was the act of an anti-Islamic gang, thereby creating an instant swarm of radicals. But he fails to see that if he films himself claiming to be the perpetrator, the whole brilliant concept is for naught.)

Another of the gang, Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), has been training a crow to carry a bomb, while a fifth member, Hassan (Arsher Ali), is recruited late in the game. Barry is impressed with Hassan's rap stylings and jihadist rhymes.

But the British SWAT squads and security officials, the pallid junkie neighbor and Omar's mall-cop coworker are equally buffoonish and bumbling. The deeper point Morris may be making in Four Lions is that terrorism is, truly, a fool's game.

But it's also a deadly game. And that's a serious conundrum, no matter how funny the comedy is.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

Four Lions

Directed by Christopher Morris. With Benedict Cumberbatch, Craig Parkinson, Preeya Kalidas, Will Adamsdale, Danny Ashok, Julia Davis, Riz Ahmed, Nigel Lindsay, Chris Wilson, Kevin Eldon. Distributed by Drafthouse Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 42 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language throughout, including some sexual references).