Four Lions Review
Chris Morris has become a name synonymous with controversy; perhaps his most infamous claim to fame is that the Daily Mail described one of his shows as “the sickest television show ever”. That show was ‘Paedogeddon!’ – the Brass Eye special that aired in 2001 which dealt with the media’s coverage and hysteria surrounding the subject of paedophilia. The timing of the show, coming so shortly after the death of Sarah Payne, is arguably what prompted most of its controversy so it should come as no surprise that his feature film directorial debut should deal with an equally relevant subject matter: terrorism and, more specifically, suicide bombers. Daily Mail journalists, get your notepads ready.
Four Lions focuses on Omar (Riz Ahmed) who, disillusioned with the treatment of Muslims, has set up a terrorist cell along with his dim-witted brother Waj (Kayvan Novak), angry white Islamic convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay) and bomb expert Faisal (Adeel Akhtar). When we first meet Omar, he is about to go to Pakistan with Waj in order to train to become a soldier within the Mujahideen while Barry is busy recruiting wannabe rapper Hassan (Arsher Ali) to the cause. When Omar returns, he discovers that Barry has forged a plan to strike in the most unexpected of places.
If you're thinking that Four Lions might be the sort of film to make an inflammatory religious comment for controversy’s sake, then you don’t know Chris Morris; Morris doesn’t set out to make a statement or to be anti or pro religion, he’s just purely focussed on the interplay between the main characters who just happen to be planning to be suicide bombers. The most inflammatory comments come from Barry, who on one occasion blames the Jews for his car not working, but he’s conveyed as such a consistently aggressive guy, who would probably be part of the IRA if an opportunity arose, that nothing he says is meant to be taken seriously and never is by the other members of the cell. There’s nothing to stop people from taking offence from the film because of its subject matter but it’s likely that if you are one of those people, then this film probably was never meant for you.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between Omar and Waj, both played superbly by Riz Ahmed and Kayvan Novak. Omar could have come across as quite an unsympathetic character as he is the one who persuades Waj, who isn’t the sharpest tool in the box, to become a suicide bomber by comparing it to the rubber dinghy rapids at Alton Towers but Ahmed is so genuine that you believe him both when he is persuading Waj and also when he starts to have second thoughts. Novak, best known for his role as Channel 4’s Fonejacker, is a revelation and creates the film’s biggest laughs with his observations on life, generally delivered when you least expect it; his stance on mini babybels is delivered off screen but his delivery and timing is so pitch perfect that he steals the entire scene.
The other members of the cast also perform brilliantly with Adeel Akhtar in particular competing with Novak as the film’s standout performance. Faisal is the only one in the cell to have any form of terrorist knowledge as he can build a bomb but, in common with the rest of the cell barring Omar, he has zero common sense which he demonstrates when he shows off the different voices he used to stockpile liquid peroxide from a local store, including a woman’s voice even though he has a beard. Chris Morris put all the actors involved in student digs while filming which proves to be a masterstroke as the banter between them is so natural that you’re practically watching a buddy movie and, most importantly, it even makes you sympathise with them which will come as an added surprise to anyone expecting another crass comedy designed to shock.
It’s not just the interplay between the characters that provides the comedy, the screenplay literally explodes, pun intended, with one-liners and endlessly quotable dialogue. It also features some of the most inventive swearing seen since last year’s In The Loop which should come as no surprise given that Four Lions is co-scripted by Jesse Armstrong who also had a hand in Armando Iannucci’s brilliant political satire. The screenplay, also written by Sam Bain and Chris Morris, works because it doesn’t try to make terrorism funny, it makes the situations that the characters land in the starting point for the comedy.
One flaw of the screenplay however is that the role of the police is not fully developed; their incompetence in dealing with the situation prompts some of the finale’s best laughs, especially in a conversation between two snipers arguing whether a wookiee is a bear, but we’re never shown why they’re incompetent especially since they are apparently following the cell during the film as early as Faisal’s attempt at making a crow carry a bomb. All of the members of the cell are seen to be so incompetent that it’s seem unlikely that the police wouldn’t be able to apprehend them, so perhaps an extra bit of flesh needed to be added to that angle of the film. However, it’s unlikely to detract from your enjoyment during the film; it’s mainly once you start to think back over the film that it arises as one of its very few missteps.
Mainly, Four Lions succeeds in its ability to surprise the viewer whether it is shattering their preconceptions going into the film or during the film when it goes to places that you never imagined it would. It’s because of the latter that to call the film a comedy is too broad of a term as it does find itself in very dramatic situations. Rarely a scene goes by without some kind of laugh but these get blacker as they go along and it’s fortunate that Morris has such a good handle of situations that make you laugh and then immediately question just what you laughed at as, in another director’s hands, it could have become a very uncomfortable watch for everyone. As it is though, Four Lions is a brilliantly funny, surprisingly touching film about a group of friends who just happen to be terrorists; Daily Mail readers might still want to stay away though.