FOUR LIONS is one of, if not the most daring comedy films of the past decade. It’s the feature directorial debut of Chris Morris, and he has transferred his passion for satirising controversial subject matter on the TV incredibly successfully onto the big screen.
The film follows a cell of jihadists based in Sheffield who are in the midst of planning a suicide bombing. If they were a united group, or if they possessed any modicum of intelligence or basic common sense between them, they might present a real threat, and the film would be a very different creature. Luckily for the sake of comic material, they’re all complete morons, and their clumsy plotting and childish squabbles take up most of the film’s run time. I won’t say exactly where or how their plans go awry, only that they go wrong in a spectacular and hilarious fashion.
The writing is sharp, side-splittingly funny and hard-hitting, as is to be expected from such talented British writers as Morris, with Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, the former of which wrote for THE THICK OF IT and IN THE LOOP, and both of whom still write for PEEP SHOW.
The central cast playing a group of inept would-be terrorists are all great – Riz Ahmed’s Omar, and especially his brotherly relationship with his best friend Waj (Kayvan Novak) is the dramatic anchor for the story, and the rest of the group is composed of brilliant comic creations. We have an innocent man-child in Waj, the manipulative, arrogant white Muslim Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the moronic suicide-bombing-crow advocating Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) and the bad music-loving Hassan (Arsher Ali). There are also some nice little cameos for British TV favourites Craig Parkinson, Alex MacQueen, Julia Davis, Kevin Eldon, Darren Boyd and Benedict Cumberbatch, and it’s amusing now to see them before their careers had really made an impact (particularly Mr Cumberbatch).
Four Lions works both as a witty satire and as an extremely black comedy. It forces us to question our views of the world, and proves there is a funny side to almost every situation, even something as seemingly bleak as home-grown religious extremism and the threat of a terrorist attack in a community with a prominent religious minority presence.
It is, unfortunately, the kind of film that is at its most affecting and enjoyable on the first watch, as on repeated viewings some of the jokes lose their impact, and the message the film aims to promote (if there is one beyond exposing the idiocy of religious extremism) feels ever more muddled and indistinct as you give it real thought. It’ll also, of course, be a divisive film – some will never find comedy potential in this subject matter, no matter how it’s presented.
Perhaps one weakness of the film is that though Riz Ahmed gives a great performance as Omar, the closest thing the film has to a protagonist, as a character he always remains an enigma. We never understand why he has chosen the path that he has, and consequently the scenes where he is interacting with his loving wife and particularly his young son, who clearly idolises his father, feel a little sinister and without clear purpose. Perhaps Morris and co. never wanted to provide an explanation for Omar’s actions to highlight the senselessness of terrorism, but by making Omar so alienated from humanity, his potential as a compelling lead character is limited. At least the rest of the group can blame a severe lack of intelligence for their actions, but Omar is shown to be considerably more level-headed and calculated in the decisions he makes, and being able to see his point of view might have proved equally insightful and terrifying for the viewer.
Even with these minor issues, Four Lions is an original, razor-sharp and exceedingly brave film that tackles the war on terror with the most powerful weapon of mass destruction of all: laughter. I eagerly look forward to seeing what else Chris Morris has stored away in that twisted little comedy brain of his. SSP