"Four Lions," the feature debut of notorious British provocateur Chris Morris, will indeed provoke righteous indignation, serious thought -- laughter. It's a challenging and often hilarious study of a group of bickering, homegrown terrorists as they plan suicide bombings in London. It's not your usual comedic fodder, but the director and co-writer's extensive research and profound intellect elevate the film above mere farce. Even the casual slapstick comes from Morris' conversations with journalists and actual jihadists, and these religious extremists' petty arguments seem not unlike those of any group working closely together.
It begins with an idiotic attempt at a jihadist video that reveals the personalities of the would-be heroes: the ultra-aggressive Barry, the dim-witted Waj, the nervous but dedicated Faisal and the intelligent Omar. Engagingly played by Riz Ahmed, Omar doesn't seem to fit the profile. He's a loving family man with a supportive wife, good job, friends; he seems fairly cosmopolitan. In an ordinary film, he'd be the MI-6 plant.
But this is an extraordinary film, which plays its premise for laughs and for something deeper. Even small gags are actually insightful, such as Waj's bullheaded insistence on facing east to pray even when he's at a training camp in Pakistan — east of Mecca.
Although "Four Lions" never comes close to endorsing the characters' bloodthirsty plans, it also never becomes heavy-handed in the other direction. That it's shot in a fly-on-the-wall, pseudo- documentary style helps maintain that distance (Morris made his name in television news parody in the '90s). Yet Omar has some genuinely touching moments, particularly with his wife and Waj.
"Four Lions," which was nominated for five British Independent Film Awards, including nods for film, screenplay and actor for Ahmed, doesn't offer moviegoers one obvious message, but rather a complex and considered glimpse into a rarely seen world, one of utter absurdity and horror.
"Four Lions." MPAA rating: R for language throughout including some sexual references. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. At Landmark's Regent Theatre, Westwood.