There are many films that have divided opinion of late, yet few with as much ferocity as Chris Morris’ suicide bomber comedy Four Lions. Set in the North of England, its fictional story of four young radicalised Muslims who attempt to bomb the London Marathon has proved a satirical delight for some, too close to the events of 7th July 2005 for others. State’s film reviewers are no exception, with Hilary White and Michael Pope sitting firmly on opposite sides of the fence….
‘The twisted brainwrong of a one-off man mental’ is how one of Chris Morris’ characters referred to an inbred farmer and his psychological torture of a wealthy cow during one of the sketches from the seminal – and ferociously funny – Brass Eye. However, when asked to define two decades of work of the man himself, there can be no more perfect a term. From the faux-Newsnight wickedness of The Day Today & Brass Eye, to the sickening abyss of Jam‘s comedic darkness. From the vacuous culture-addled berks of Nathan Barley to the anarchic mischief of Morris’ legendary radio pranks.
So, here comes the man-mental’s first feature film. Four Lions is a brainwrong four years in the making, extensively researched and, on paper at least, a hot controversy potato to rival the 2001 Brass Eye Paedogeddon special that had certain members of the public getting their copies of The Sun and The Daily Mail in a twist. But the 47-year-old Bristol man’s film about a small, confused gang of eager self-exploders is much more than it would seem. Rather than courting controversy by disturbing audiences with bad taste gags and merciless satire, he’s crafted a character-strong bomb-com with real heart.
Omar (Riz Ahmed) has a wife and child who couldn’t be prouder of his intended massacre, white Islamic-convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay) wants to bomb a mosque because he’s stupid, Waj (Kayvan Novak, otherwise known as TV’s Fonejacker) is even more stupid but believably naive and misguided, and Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) and Ira Hassan (Arsher Ali) are along for the ride to virgin-clogged paradise but wish it wasn’t such hard work. Yes, technically, that’s five lions, but the accidental bursting of one of our heroes while running through a field with a shopping bag full of explosives sorts out that little inconsistency. As funny as the banter, comradery and conflict between the team can be, it’s Ahmed’s performance as a believable protagonist and willing leader of men that gives the film its real substance. His control of the suggestible Waj could have easily segued into nasty manipulation, but so defty played is the friendship between the two that it becomes the core of the film’s final 20 minutes.
Recruiting Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong as co-writers has clearly helped Morris with the building of credible relationships between his male leads, something that he may not have had much experience with in his cannon of warped gems. In much the same way as their Peep Show BFFs Mark and Jeremy have grown on us despite their questionable choices and near despicable lack of morals, there’s compassion for this band of merry mass-murderers.
Around this core of authenticity are, of course, a lot of laughs. After all, this is the man who made Richard Blackwood – it’s ok if you’ve forgotten him by now – sniff a computer keyboard that emitted toxic paedophile vapours. There’s a water pistol fight between Muslims of varying beliefs, a glorious scene featuring Toploader’s ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’, the recklessly idiotic use of a Bazooka, covert techniques for buying bomb making equipment – simply cover your bushy beard to pose as a woman – and police marksmen disputing if they just shot a bear or Chewbacca.
Cleverly remaining in its own insular world to avoid the inevitable horror of its character’s actions, Four Lions is a film of affectionate farce rather than scathing satire, and as Aphex Twin’s Avril 14th plays over the end credits the feeling is more -awwwww’ than shock.
I have a pretty sick sense of humour when I want to. I’ll point and cackle loudly when obese people fall over in the street, for example. I laughed when that Nordie guy got blown up in Michael Collins. As I always like to say, a bit of schadenfreude never hurt anyone. When I watched Brasseye, Chris Morris’s dangerous satire about media voyeurism in the UK, it was like someone was making TV comedy just for me.
So why didn’t I find Morris’s first feature-length film at all funny? Four Lions should be a triumphant return of UK comedy’s most notorious provocateur, but it isn’t. It’s just a poorly made, lazily written saga with a lowest-common-denominator humour throughout. And before you wag the finger, it wasn’t the subject matter – thick-as-shit Jihadists trying to pull off suicide bombings at the London Marathon – which I found too sensitive to be funny. It was the standard of the jokes.
We all chuckled when Steve Coogan’s character got vaporised by a mine in Tropic Thunder, yes? That gag is used to exhaustion here. The exchanges between the potential terrorists are stupid – not in a Laurel and Hardy way, but more a Jedward way. You soon begin to feel embarrassed for the -actors’ involved, who may think they are off to big things being under Morris’s wing.
What could have been a scandalous and vitally reflective study on the inane philosophies of extremist Muslims has materialised as slapstick and nauseatingly infantile. Where’s the danger? Where’s Morris’s defilement of the zeitgeist? And why is it getting some good reviews – are people afraid to feel left out when Morris is involved?
If you like your humour uncomplicated, obvious and spoon-fed to you (-here comes the plane, neeeeeaaawww’¦’), you might find yourself laughing, but only here and there. But bar obese men tripping over dog leads, I don’t. This is not only a crushing disappointment for comedy lovers everywhere. It is also, in the story of Morris’s life, his great missed opportunity to really shake things up on a global scale.