A review requested by Dave F, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The 2010 film Four Lions could only ever have been made in Britain, for two reasons. One of these reasons is that Britain's Pakistani population occupies a relatively uncommon sweet spot between assimilation and xenophobia, and that status fuels everything about the story in a way that wouldn't really work exactly right for any minority group in, say, the United States or France (I think the German Turkish population might fit, but nothing else leaps to mind). The other reason is that I can't imagine this working without that good ol' English Sense of Humor, where the cartoonishly absurd and the unspeakably morbid sit hand-in-hand in the sunlight. Because Four Lions is nothing so much as a Three Stooges-esque comedy about a bunch of bumbling nincompoops who keep having wacky mishaps as they try to set themselves up as suicide bombers. You could make that film in America or France, but I have a really hard time imagining anybody doing so.

The film's director, Chris Morris, has had a longstanding history of attracting controversy (he oversaw a fake news special in 2001, satirising over-the-top media panics about pedophilia, that was a magnet for complaints), though I don't believe Four Lions actually received such a reception. I wonder if that's because the film puts up such a good illusion of being nice: the five main characters are such appealing goofballs, independent of their actions, and movies as a construct are so good at forcing our sympathy for whatever we're watching, that there are lengthy stretches of the movie where it has the shaggy vibe of a charming hang-out movie. And it's fun, and pleasant, and then a line of dialogue will snap the focus back, and the pleasant fun curdles in your stomach, right on the spot. If I am right that the film skated around controversy, it's perhaps because it hits that balance so well: Four Lions does exceptional work in humanising its wannabe terrorists, explaining who they are and why they hold these particular motivations, showing us that they are normal, workaday people. And it does this without ever glossing over the fact that they want to do something terrible that will result, on purpose, in the death of innocent bystanders.

The four lions are a group of Pakistani Muslims in Sheffield - or anyway, three Pakistani Muslims and one belligerent white guy. They are Omar (Riz Ahmed), who we can figure out pretty quickly is the solitary member of the group with much in the way of brains, or a sense of consequence; Waj (Kayvan Novak), his cousin, who's bit slower on the uptake; Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), an outright clod; and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a clod who's also the most viscerally militant of the group. Zeal of the convert, and all that. A fifth member joins their group, while Omar and Waj are overseas at an Al Qaeda boot camp: at a community meeting that Barry attempts to ruin with his loud denunciations of the white devil, he gets jihad-themed rapper Hassan (Arsher Ali) all wound up, and manages in his bullish way to convince the young man that turning towards acts of terrorism is the good and proper thing to do as a faithful Muslim, an argument that Hassan agrees to without seeming to fully believe in it, ever.

There's very little plot in the script that Morris co-wrote with Sam Bain & Jesse Armstrong, and most of the film simply hovers around the five characters, and the people they bump into, as they plan with all their might and end up getting nowhere. Temperamentally, the film bears more than a slight similarity to The Thick of It, a show that both Armstrong and Bain wrote for (though Armstrong has a great many more episodes to his credit): it's basically a procedural in which people jumping ahead of themselves end up making vaguely awkward situations go terribly, and the only person who's not an idiot finds himself reduced to shouting colorfully filthy insults at his fellows, in order to gain some semblance of authority over a situation in freefall. The insults in this case are in subtitled Urdu, which weirdly has the effect of accentuating them - the inherent gravitas of subtitling and the absurdist vulgarity of the language creates, in a small way, the same tension between things that simply must not be combined that the rest of the movie exploits. For what is comedy, if it's not stacking two incongruous things together and letting them spark?

Four Lions is capable of being boisterously funny, but it's a movie not designed to be loved easily, or by most people, I suspect. But what makes it awkward and weird comedy is precisely what makes it smart satire. The characters are fully Westernised, living the boring lives of normal Sheffielders, using the same gadgets as all the other twentysomething males in England. They have, to all appearances, comfortable, unexceptional existences; the presence of radical fundamentalism is as much an disruption of their lives as of the society they hope to terrorise, for reasons that are always based more in abstract concepts of The West versus The East than in specific things any of them hope to achieve. What hole any of them feel that gets filled by their violent belief is left entirely off the page; the most we can assume is that there's some general sense of Not-Right that embracing the most toxic leg of arch-conservative Islam might be able to patch. That is to say, these are pathetic characters, and I do mean that in the most narrow sense of "pathetic" - they are defined by their failures and emptiness, and the unhealthy way they go about trying to fix things.

There's a lot of nuance and depth to these characters, without any exoneration - this is no apologia for radical Islam, nor even a "we should understand them" plea. But it's not vilifying them either, or transforming them into stock bad guys. By no means have I seen every 21st Century film made in the English language about terrorism, but this goes as far as anything I can name in exploring the idea that terrorists are people - people who must be stopped and are dangerous, and whose worldview is unspeakably corrupt and vile - but people with feelings nonetheless.

That would be impressive enough: that this level of character building comes in the form of a farce about near-constant ineptitude is more impressive still. These are broad comic characters working through broad comic situations, and I found Four Lions to be awfully funny almost without interruption. Morris and company mix up the tones subtly but consistently throughout: in this scene we'll be focusing on the terrorists' fundamental misunderstanding of the tools of the trade, but in this scene we'll poke fun at them for just being panicking morons in general. And in this scene we'll just go for random absurdity. It's the absurdity I like best: a teddy bear singing gaily in Urdu, a chat room where the men communicate as little puffins wearing scarves, a lengthy conversation between police snipers at to whether a man running a marathon in costume is dressed as Chewbacca, or just a bear. But it's pretty consistently funny throughout, even in the hoariest gags: late in the film, a cut that shows how much the lions would rather listen to "Dancing in the Moonlight" than the inspirational Muslim songs meant to pump them up for their deadly mission is the most obvious kind of gag, but at that point in the film, with how much we know about the characters, it works. As I am fond of saying, humor is subjective, and Four Lions is inherently and inevitably the very darkest possible kind of humor, but for me, it never stops working. It's no The Thick of It - what is? - but it's smart and bleak and hilarious.

And then at the end it, very suddenly and upsettingly isn't - the movie leaves enough of an ashen taste in your mouth to make you choke on it. This is a necessary thing; it's what the whole movie has built towards. We've been watching the jovial mockery of a very intense and sincere and poisonous worldview; then, to usher us on our way, the film reminds us of what that worldview actually engenders. You can't have satire without anger, and the sudden downshift that Four Lions ends on is certainly angry, though it is probably more sad. Either way, it's the place where the film cuts hardest. After a movie full of humanist comedy, a little dose of humanist outrage is a worthy, if thoroughly unpleasant chaser, and it leaves Four Lions as a viciously sharp attack on the ways that ideology can manage, almost without any prompting from the outside, to convince normal people to give up their humanity. It's a dour ending for a funny movie, but damned if it isn't well-earned.