Movie review: Four Lions
Chris Morris' terrorism comedy is a work of satirical brilliance
Cert: 15, 101 mins
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay
When Stanley Kubrick began researching what would be Dr. Strangelove, he was planning a Cold War thriller about a nuclear accident. The more he read, however, the more he actually tried to envisage the scenes, the more he found he kept having to leave bits out: truthful bits, but bits that were too absurd, too ridiculous, bits that ended up being funny. So instead he kept them in – and made it a black comedy.
With Four Lions, Chris Morris has taken a short-cut, and gone straight there. Because, like the threat of nuclear war, terrorism is a subject that plays on our fears, but rarely invites our logic. Start picking it apart, and it’s a joke.
How many virgins are “martyrs” getting in the promised afterlife again? Is a bomb really going to cause Muslims to rise up worldwide? They’re going to do it using what?
The simple premise of Morris‘ film – known for his brilliant satire on the media, The Day Today – is this: for every 9/11 and 7/7 that causes untold destruction, countless more are attempted by bunglers, idiots and fools who blow themselves up before they get near anyone else. Terrorism, Morris implies, is mostly not done by the intelligent. This is satire with its game face on: don’t give them the respect of seriousness; just show how silly they are.
Mostly, Morris does it with caricature. After radicalised Muslim Omar (Riz Ahmed) and his dim-wit brother Waj (Kayvan Novak) return to England after a disastrous spell at a Mujahideen training camp, they set about planning an attack on home soil with the help of bungling bomb maker Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) and a ranting white convert in the form of Barry (an excellent Nigel Lindsay).
Morris‘ characters aren’t subtle, and nor is his approach, but it’s very funny indeed. He takes aim at everything – from suspect moral logic (Barry doesn’t understand why bombing a Mosque is a bad idea – he thinks Muslims will rise up, yet also wants to take the credit for doing it), cry-wolf discrimination (“What, just because I’m a Muslim you thought it was real?” says a young man – after pretending to have a bomb strapped to him), and media bias (“I’m not saying training camps don’t exist, but if they didn’t, you’d invent them”).
Everything serious gets a silly twist: a man in an “upside-down clown” suit holds his “feet” up to be arrested; they eat their SIM cards but wonder if they can cook them first; they squabble over who’s the “most Al-Qaeda“; martydom is likened to going to theme park and not having to queue for the “rubber dinghy rapids” ride. No-one has a clue.
All this is brilliant – gloriously, logic-twistingly, belly laugh funny. And with the wonderful Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain among the co-writers – Thick Of It and Peep Show writers well-versed in drawing the comedy from inept bunglers in serious circumstances – perhaps even expected.
But then, it’s easy to mock idiots. Some, you reason, must have some brains. Where, in short, is the film’s weight?
It comes, in part, with Omar – not just the brains of the group, but, as he’s the only one we see with a family life, the film’s moral centre too. It comes, too, with a point that was obvious all along: bombs go boom, and this lot were never going to be the best at setting them off…
The finale is a marvel – a thing of both poignant drama and high farce as they attempt to set their bombs off while in fancy-dress during the London marathon. That it eventually finds itself gravitated to the latter – to one, final, great joke – could be seen as the film’s weakness: ploughing the same shallow comic furrow rather than digging for any depth.
But I don’t think so. It’s Morris once again never giving terrorists the seriousness they shouldn’t deserve. It’s Morris refusing to bow to a filmic convention that says lessons must be ultimately learnt. It’s Morris saying: maybe some people don’t have depth, maybe they don’t learn, and maybe the shallow is all there is. And ultimately, it’s Morris being subversive with that oldest of showbiz maxims. Make ’em laugh.