In case you’ve kept your brain in a drawer for the last two years, Four Lions is the directorial debut of British comedy’s most prominently mysterious enfant terrible, Chris Morris. Loved and loathed in equal measure, throughout his twenty year career he has managed to produce some of the most insightful and intellectually challenging comedy in recent memory while simultaneously managing to provoke and offend the sensibilities of thousands of viewers wherever he lays his hat. Four Lions is the proof, if proof were needed, that Chris Morris does not write to shock for shock’s sake – he writes to provoke us to change.
For this film Morris eschews the ‘news-satire’ format he made his name with and returns to the narrative format of his earlier work, Jam. The story of the banal and absurd preparations four novice terrorists go through in preparation for an attack on the London Marathon, Four Lions was sold as ‘Carry On Qaeda’ – in the early press materials, Morris said that he wanted to show the ‘Dad’s Army side to terrorism’. He succeeds somewhat, but don’t expect custard pies and belly laughs. Summing the film up like that works as a quick way to sell the film but the film is so much deeper and more heartfelt than your average comedy – it’s a quiet, considered, measured comedy of (t)errors.
It is the scenes in which we are shown the depth of feeling that exists between two of the main characters, Omar and Waj, that reveals the heart of the film. Cousins shown to have a symbiotic and ultimately tragic father/son relationship in which the much wiser Omar instructs the more naive and, at times, stupid Waj. One scene which manages to be both heart-wrenching and absurdly hilarious occurs in a kebab shop close to the end of the film, in which Waj is on the phone with Omar. He is unsure of what to do next, and is in fact so muddled up that he isn’t even sure if he is confused or not. His solution is to stop the phone conversation with Omar to take a picture of his own face, to check if he looks confused. It’s a touchingly child-like moment in the midst of chaos and a moment that would have felt out of place in other hands.
Morris’ control over the film wrestles any notions of exploitation or mindless bigotry from the heads of lazy journalists – meticulously researched over the course of three years, it’s the attention to detail evident throughout that allows this film the luxury of throwing in a few laugh-out-loud moments – usually when they’re least expected; a Heimlich maneouvre going terribly wrong, using specialist techniques to avoid covert photography, the logistics of making a toy gun look much bigger on camera… these are all moments of genuine slapstick hilarity in a film that relies largely on subtlety and nuance in it’s melancholy humour.
The cast are superb – newcomer Riz Ahmed gives a chillingly warm performance as Omar and Kayvan “Fonejacker” Novak proves there are more strings to his acting bow than just Brian Badonde with his naively sweet performance as Waj. Barry, the white convert (and ironically the most psychotically dangerous of the group) is played by Nigel Lindsay, Hassan, the rapping fundamentalist (‘I’m the Mujahideen / and I’m making a scene’) is played by newcomer Arsher Ali, and last – but not least – the poor crow-loving Faisal is played perfectly by Adeel Akhtar. Julia Davies threatens to steal the show with her tiny cameo as Alice, along with other blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from Morris’s usual players.
Overall the film is a provocative, warm, funny, touching and sad attempt to show that the villainous one-dimensional Islamist caricatures painted by the media are people too, just people with very odd ideas. It’s a telling irony that the truly observant and peace-loving Muslims in the film are the ones targeted by the police, and the terrorists, with their twisted ideas, are allowed to carry on undisturbed.
Best scene: Transporting the explosives from the flat to the allotment – classic Morris.
Best line: ‘Rubber dinghy rapids, bro!’
Watch this if you liked: Jam, Chris Morris’ seminal TV sketch show.