FOUR LIONS directed by Chris Morris, written by Morris, Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain and Simon Blackwell, with Riz Ahmed, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak and Arsher Ali. An eOne Entertainment release. 98 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (February 25). For venues and times, see Movies.
Chris Morris made his mark in England by going further than any satirist has gone before.
In two brilliant television series, The Day Today and Brass Eye, he's lampooned the increasing vapidity of Britain's news media. The latter show caused an actual scandal with a 2001 special about England's pedophile hysteria, "Paedogeddon!"
In his feature debut, Four Lions, Morris takes on an equally loaded topic - homegrown jihadists, here imagined as a quartet of inept would-be martyrs plotting a massacre out of a dingy flat outside London.
"I was reading Al-Qaeda: The True Story Of Radical Islam, by Jason Burke, and I noticed that there were several examples of terrorist plans that were much funnier than I was expecting them to be in terms of what actually happened," Morris says from England.
"The one that kicked it off was some Yemenis who wanted to blow up a U.S. warship with an exploding boat and got as far as assembling on the quayside at 3 in the morning. They put their launch in the water and filled it with explosives - and it sank."
He also notes the 2006 plot by would-be Canadian terrorists to behead Stephen Harper and occupy CBC headquarters at the same time - even though the former was in Ottawa and the latter in Toronto.
"Both amongst terrorist units that managed to pull off an attack and those that failed, there's a rich history of flat-footedness and human failings. Most enterprises are characterized by a fair degree of screwing things up along the way. Why would that be any different in a jihadi cell?"
The key conflict in Four Lions isn't between Islam and the West, however. It's played out between two of the would-be bombers, Omar (Riz Ahmed) and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), who've come to the movement from very different perspectives.
"Omar would say he's fighting an injustice, while Barry would say he's fighting for the end of days, to bring it all on," Morris says. "He just wants a big fight; he's a nihilist looking to ground his aggression somewhere. That happened, actually. There was a neo-Nazi ideologue who inspired some nail bomb attacks in the 90s by a group called Combat 18. He converted to Islam when he saw 9/11 because he realized it was the best fight on the planet."
Morris brought Four Lions to North America carefully, premiering it to strong critical notices at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and nudging it into commercial release last fall with a word-of-mouth tour of major cities - "not just L.A., but San Francisco, Boston, DC, Seattle, New York and even down to Lubbock, Texas.
"The place that most singularly impressed me was New York, because I thought the people there might feel sensitive about terrorist attacks," he says. "But they were precisely the opposite: ‘Look, we've been through this, so we're more than happy to deal with it as a comedy.'"