Nothing should be sacred in comedy, especially that which people hold sacred. When that belief is as wrong-headed as the concept of a suicide bomber killing oneself and as many others as possible and believing the end result of mass murder will be a direct route to Heaven, it’s almost a moral imperative to counteract such lunacy by pointing out how insane it actually is.

Four Lions is just that kind a neutralizing force, a film of such delicate and precise balance that it manages to treat its players (hopeful suicide bombers) with farcical dismissal while portraying its subject (partially the causes and mainly the results of such fanaticism) with thoughtful, somber respect. The screenplay reduces the premise of suicide bombing to the absurd through the central terrorist’s disorganization, incompetence, and lack of a clear goal, and from there, it’s simply a matter of letting them draw — in their minds — the most logical conclusions from such madness.

The film plays this scenario of escalating the initial absurdist reduction over and over. Whether the third-rate, makeshift mujahideen of the story are debating whether accidental self-detonation qualifies one for martyrdom or arguing the technique of flying crows strapped with explosives into a building, screenwriters Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, and director Chris Morris constantly find new ways to dismantle the thought process of a extremist.

They begin with a quartet of men in Sheffield, England, set on blowing themselves up for the cause bringing about the final war between Islam and the rest of the world. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is their leader. When comparing his life against the others in the group, that role comes mostly by default. He holds a steady job as a security guard at a mall, has a wife (Preeya Kalidas) and son (Mohammad Aqil) who support his real ambition (in one of the film’s many hilarious but disquieting scenes, Omar explains his concept of jihad using characters from The Lion King), and knows a relative who helps to run a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

His friend Waj (Kayvan Novak), who will be accompanying Omar to the camp, can’t even stay focused while recording a video statement, brandishing a miniature toy AK-47 to look threatening. Convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay) considers himself the “invisible jihadi,” although his idea of “hiding in plain sight” means baking a cake like the World Trade Center and bringing it to a local synagogue on September 11. Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) is similarly hopeless; he’s been stocking up on bleach for explosives, bought from the same nearby store but using a different voice every time. His beard sort of gives away his female disguise.

Training camp is an abject failure for Omar and Waj (to an extent we only fully realize during the post-finale coda) after the former uses an RPG in the wrong direction. To hide the shame, they pretend they are on a special assignment to their comrades in arms, including Barry’s new protégé Hassan (Arsher Ali), whose publicity stunt involving a faux bomb at a community meeting to improve relations with the Muslim population catches Barry’s attention and ire. Barry would have rather Hassan used a real bomb to make his point.

Hassan’s point with his confetti explosion is that, if everyone in the world views him as a terrorist simply because of his religion and the color of his skin, then there’s no reason he shouldn’t meet their expectations. He’s been driven to this point. Morris, Armstrong, and Bain don’t push blame away from these five for their plan, but they don’t cover up the failure that comes in pigeonholing people in the way Hassan perceives. The law enforcement officials of the film are inept in their own way. Snipers confuse a furry, orange costume for a bear suit and then confuse a Wookiee outfit for a bear getup, and in the middle of their debate, an innocent person is dead because they look a certain way. The same happens in a hostage standoff late in the film in which the cops shoot first and ask questions later, leaving the wrong man — once again — dead, and when it comes to making an arrest for the gang’s monitored activities, they instead concentrate their efforts on his anti-violence but fundamentalist and conservatively dressed brother (Wasim Zakir).

There’s no love of religion from Omar, who ignores his brother’s pleading to reconsider violence by starting a water gun fight, and his gang, who don’t attend mosque. Barry even has the bright idea of blowing up a local mosque, which, he supposes, will rile up the moderates and hasten the war of the end times. If that’s not enough of the reasoning of the illogical for you, the idea continues even further. Omar points out that it’s like a fight between two men in which the losing participant begins punching himself in the face, and of course, there’s only one more step to take from there: Make Barry argue his case by literally employing Omar’s metaphor.

So what is their motivation? Omar, Barry, and Hassan are driven, to different degrees of intensity (from Omar’s rationalized to Hassan’s reactionary to Barry’s outlandish), by anger. Faisal and especially Waj are along for the ride, just fitting in with their companions. Just before setting off on their plan at the London Marathon in ridiculous costumes, Waj has doubts, and Omar does some verbal acrobatics to shift his own words of manipulation (“Your brain and heart have switched places,” he juggles).

Four Lions is exceptionally funny but underneath its pointed satirical surface lies a compelling understanding of the circumstances and consequences of its targets for ridicule. The ending is particularly sobering. Even the most bungling of fools can get lucky at least once. For people like Omar, whose one aim is to die smiling, and his cohorts, it only takes one time, and luck means innocent people will die. It’s the loudest sort of last laugh.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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