A few months ago, Four Lions hit the cinema screens, and it’s taken me until now – and a late run at Eden Court – to catch it. I’m sorry it took such a long time, because I have really wanted to see it firstly because it is by Chris Morris and secondly because by all accounts it was truly excellent.
Chris Morris is the controversial brain behind spoof news show The Day Today and the much-lauded and much-complained about satirical documentary series Brass Eye.
It’s no surprise, then, when you hear he has created a comedy about a hapless group of Jihadist suicide bombers from Sheffield.
The film’s key characters are five young, disillusioned and angry men who want to engage in spectacular acts of martyrdom to protest against the decadent capitalism they see in the West. The problem for the gang, however, is that far from being criminal and theological masterminds, they are a collection of buffoons with infinitely more anger than intelligence.
The two leaders – who are clearly in something of a power struggle and personality clash – are Omar, a highly-driven idealogue despite being a family man in a stable job, and Barry, a zealous white convert who is arguably the most determined of the group.
The gang’s plans are dogged by internal feuds (mostly between Omar and Barry); pathetic contradictions in their attitudes towards both “true” Islam and British culture; a complete lack of direction or deep roots in anything like real faith… not to mention an inability to handle explosives carefully.
This is where the film’s real strength, its script, lies: with both cunning subtlety and biting brutality, the comments and asides about the West (for instance one man’s identification of mini Babybels as an icon of materialism), the hilarious dialogue as the leaderless bunch fall apart, and their arguments over what target they should attack, all combine to betray their hapless and disorientated approach to their mission. Indeed, such is the quality of the packed script, I am sure I’ll need a second or third viewing to really appreciate it. You can only laugh at their pathetic approach, for instance, when you learn the would-be bombers are using a children’s networking site to discuss plans online, posing as cartoon penguins while they discuss terrorist attacks.
Perhaps the strongest portrayal of the team’s incompetence lies in a trip Omar and another take to Pakistan to train at a terrorist camp. Their abstract dogmatism and their poor handling of weapons – not to mention the disdain that local fighters have towards them – leads us to see that these guys are not just pathetic examples of Muslims but pathetic examples of soldiers too.
But more serious, and often more sinister, undertones appear when we see the interaction of the group with their friends and family. We see a lot of Omar’s family, for instance: him telling bedside stories to his young son that are metaphors for Jihadist attacks, or discussing his plans with his entirely supportive wife. Indeed, when Omar sees his wife for the last time, in public at her workplace, he tells her in code that he’s off to commit his attack. As she struggles to hold back tears that are clearly more of pride than sadness, you realise her support is as evil as her husband’s deed.
And deeds there more certainly are at the end, as the team target the London marathon, their explosives hidden under fancy dress costumes. Dressed as characters like the Honey Monster and a Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle, the team is both clinically evil and unintentionally absurd: a brutal juxtaposition that in many ways sums up the whole film and echoes throughout it.
Without fully giving away the poignant ending, the plans result in tragedy – both for the innocent victims and for the bombers themselves, none of whom properly achieve the blaze of glory they seek.
But this is not just a film that has a tasteless laugh about suicide bombers: others are equally lampooned, such as the unprepared police, the widely off the mark intelligence services, and the ignorance of the group’s non-Muslim acquaintances who clearly have no idea what their neighbours or colleagues are planning. As such, we are left with the message that everyone is a fool, the film blaming everyone for not taking the chances they were presented with.
Four Lions, for me, makes a powerful point that while we must hate the evil of terrorism, we can also lampoon its idiocy. As you’d expect from Chris Morris, Four Lions is hysterically funny and uncomfortably, uncompromisingly dark. But it is only because it is both of those things at once that it is able to be so effective.