‘Four Lions’ is Morris’s first feature film, written with ‘Peep Show’ scribes Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, and is no less concerned with the media’s bending of the truth, even if its model is more ‘The Young Ones’ than ‘Newsnight’. So much has been said about ‘homegrown’ terrorism (like it’s some sort of cannabis plant) that Morris counters the chatter not by reconstructing and mocking the reporting of falsehoods in the style of ‘The Day Today’ or ‘Brass Eye’ but by making a knockabout comedy about five wannabe jihadis from Sheffield.
Morris wants us to point and laugh at these twits: Omar (Riz Ahmed), a family man, outwardly sensible, who travels to Afghanistan and fires a missile launcher the wrong way round; Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white convert and angry hothead who wants to bomb mosques to make Muslims rise up; Fessel (Adeel Akhtar), a dopey fool with mud for brains who pretends to be from the IRA when buying chemicals; Waj (Kayvan Novak), an infantile and thick brute who sees heaven like the ‘rubber-dinghy rapids’ ride at Alton Towers and views life through an Xbox; and Hassan (Arsher Ali), a rapping joker who Barry meets when he reveals a ‘bomb belt’ of party poppers at a public political debate.
We follow these misguided clowns as they persuade a dumb neighbour they’re a band; as they try to make bombs; as they sing Toploader on the way down the M1; and as they try to blow themselves up dressed as fun runners in the London marathon. The film opens with a botched attempt to record a martyr’s video and continues in the same absurdist spirit. The film looks as cheap as these guys’ homemade bombs; it has a loose, freewheeling air, although the humour of the script is as crafted and honed as anything in ‘Peep Show’ or ‘The Thick of It’ and delights in similar wordplay: Bin Laden becomes ‘some Paki Steptoe’; two police marksmen argue over whether the Honey Monster is a bear; and clueless Barry spits: ‘Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic.’
Those expecting slick, serious-minded satire might be a little surprised: Morris and his team dress their sharp observations and savage one-liners in the clothes of slapstick pratfalls and broad gags. Many filmmakers who undertook the level of research that Morris claims to have done before making ‘Four Lions’ would have come up with a work of sombre realism that tried to explain its protagonists’ motivations and make us understand them more. Morris might achieve the latter, and there’s a serious, even moving, tone behind the gags, but there’s nothing sombre or even very real about ‘Four Lions’. It’s scrappy and chaotic. Some scenes are hilarious; some are too loopy or uncomfortable to provoke laughs; all strive to achieve something genuinely unusual and essentially true.
Obviously, just to make a comedy about terrorists is daring. But what’s most bold about ‘Four Lions’ is not the gags at the expense of these fools (they feel fully justified) or the finger-pointing at the similar stupidity and incompetence of the authorities. No – it’s the decision to see the world from these lads’ point of view, not ours.
This means that we run along, laughing, with the quiet suggestion that maybe our country is, as they say, just a little bit, well, shit. The film’s opening shot looks like a mosque at night but turns out to be the uninspiring dome of a dull shopping centre where Omar works in security. Repeated establishing shots of a top-flat ‘bomb factory’ place it next to a grim flyover on the edge of a city. We might not agree with the cry ‘Let’s bomb Boots!’, but ‘Fuck Mini Babybel!’ has an oddly rousing ring to it by the end of this uneasy, surprising sort-of-comedy.