Few actors had as good a last decade as Riz Ahmed. He won an Emmy for his terrific performance as the accused murderer in The Night Of. He got his first Oscar nomination playing a drummer losing his hearing in Sound of Metal. In between, he was part of the best recent Star Wars film, Rogue One, and also continued to pursue a music career, co-founding the politically-charged hip-hop duo Swet Shop Boys and also putting out his own material. (I highly recommend last year’s The Long Goodbye.) Perhaps you’d prefer I single out his stellar work in Nightcrawler, Girls or Mogul Mowgli instead — no disagreement here. Add in the fact that he’s a thoughtful interview subject who’s not just smart but also outspoken about issues like immigration and cultural identity — he’s one of the executive producers of Flee, a superb documentary out now about an Afghan refugee who fled to Denmark in his teens — and you’ve got an artist who’s only 39 and seems poised for even greater things in the future.
With all that said, Ahmed has a new movie out this weekend, Encounter, which has only received so-so reviews. So instead, why not check out a film he did a little over 10 years ago that flew a bit under the radar? It might be hard to imagine that a dark comedy about Islamic jihadists could actually work, but Four Lions walks a delicate tightrope fairly deftly. For a lot of us, it was also our first inkling of what a dynamic actor he was going to be.
The film, directed and co-written by Chris Morris (a frequent collaborator with Armando Iannucci), concerns a group of young British Muslim men who decide they want to take down the West by becoming terrorists. But much like the clueless metalheads in This Is Spinal Tap, they’re not the brightest, so their efforts are mostly just comically inept. In Four Lions’ most bleakly funny set piece, one of the guys discovers that you really need to be careful when you’re running with explosives — being a klutz can lead to disaster.
Back when Four Lions was coming together, Ahmed had already started landing some film and TV roles. He was born in England, although his parents had moved there from Pakistan, and early in his career he found himself being courted for particular kinds of parts. “[I had] done this film called Road to Guantanamo. … As a Muslim brown actor just graduating into the industry post-9/11, that was most of the jobs that were out there,” he told VICE last year. “I made the decision that I didn’t want to do films that reinforced false and negative stereotypes, I wanted to do work that challenged stereotypes.”
Ahmed liked the script for Four Lions, although initially he passed, wary of signing on to a movie in which he’d be playing a wannabe jihadist. But Morris changed his mind. “He said it would be different and to trust him, that it was a comedy and not more stuff feeding into stereotypes,” Ahmed recalled. “When I said yes I didn’t think anyone would even end up seeing it.”
To watch Four Lions now, it can be a bit of a shock to see the younger Ahmed already demonstrating the star power we’d soon take as a given from him. (The film isn’t just a terrific introduction for Ahmed, by the way — Benedict Cumberbatch and What We Do in the Shadows’ Kayvan Novak are also part of the ensemble.) He plays Omar, who exhibits some of the same political consciousness that Ahmed exudes in his music and interviews, except this domesticated married man just doesn’t have the ability to be a good leader or jihadist. There’s a charming, almost poignant naivety to his enthusiasm to hit back at Western society — he feels like he needs to do something, even if he’s not sure what that is — and after visiting an al-Qaeda camp in Pakistan, he learns how inefficient he is with weapons in the most hilariously tragic way imaginable.
Coming out less than 10 years after 9/11, Four Lions was a satire that mixed laughs with winces. The reviews were generally positive, but there was also a contingent of critics who felt it was too soon to even attempt to make a comedy about this subject matter, especially one depicting Muslim characters wanting to blow up targets in the West. Plus, what did Morris know about the experience of British Muslims? That was Ahmed’s concern initially as well: “We’d meet for a coffee every couple of months, and I would download him on where my anxieties were as a socially and creatively engaged British Muslim. What I soon found out was that his knowledge of street-level British Muslim life outstripped mine. He knows his shit.”
Akin to Dr. Strangelove, Four Lions took on society’s biggest fear at that moment — homegrown terrorist attacks, as opposed to nuclear war — and treated it with a matter-of-fact seriousness while populating the film with confident imbeciles. That slight bit of exaggeration somehow made the proceedings all the more unsettling as well as funny: What if some radicalized young men, determined to prove their manliness and commitment to their ideals, decided to launch a strike during the midst of, say, the London Marathon? And what if they weren’t the xenophobic stereotypes we see in action movies but were, instead, basically misguided, complicated bros who didn’t have any other way to express themselves?
In Four Lions, you come to care about these dolts while constantly recoiling at the violent act they want to perform. Our antiheroes think they’ve got what it takes to die in a blaze of glory, only to realize too late how pointless their mission is.
Because Ahmed has excelled in dramatic roles in recent years, Four Lions is a nice reminder of what a strong comedic actor he can be — although there’s nothing clownish about Omar. The guy is passionate about his cause, which makes his feebleness all the scarier. Just because he and his buddies are incompetent terrorists, that doesn’t mean they won’t end up killing innocent bystanders along the way. Indeed, since its release the movie has gained a cult following for its nervy tone and unexpectedly somber, moving finale. Morris plays his conceit for laughs — of which there are many — but he never lets the audience forget the real-world consequences of the actual Omars out there walking around.
A glibber satire would have just viewed these guys as morons, but Riz Ahmed brings the same soulfulness and vulnerability that we’ve become accustomed to from him. You can see why Omar is a fool but also why he feels like being a (pitiful) terrorist is the only way he can make a difference. That’s why so many of Four Lions’ jokes have a tenseness to them — the whole movie is like a slow fuse, and we wait for the bomb to go off.