If you’ve never heard of Chris Morris then you’re in for a real treat. He’s the man who persuaded a British radio DJ to declare that “paedophiles have more genetically in common with crabs than they do with you and me”; got a journalist to explain the importance of mile-high vertical farms as an alternative to the space issues of horizontal farming; who had an actor destroy a small model village with a hammer, declaring that this is the effect of environmentally-caused ‘heavy rain’ – that it was “like being hit over the head with a ton of lead soup.” He even went to buy made-up drugs from real drug dealers on the streets wearing nothing more than a nappy and a red balloon on his head. And despite getting a celebrity to declare that his ‘made-up’ drug, called ‘Cake’ would make you ‘throw up your own pelvis bone’ that did not stop Parliament taking it very seriously when they were made aware of this totally fictional drug. He’s like Dom Joly (Trigger Happy TV), except his sketches are always both politically and socially insightful; like Michael Moore except he uses humour as a weapon rather than overly blunt vulgarity.
A producer, writer, director and star of much of his own work, his best TV project was the spoof current affairs show, Brass Eye, a fictional news programme which was intended to be a follow-up series to his previous fake news series, The Day Today (which itself resulted in the spin-off Alan Partridge shows). It showed his undeniable skills as an intelligent satirist and, frankly, as a comic genius. Unfortunately, although he did write the engaging series Nathan Barley (but not star in it), his fans have been waiting years for him to come up with new, top notch material. Then Four Lions was announced – Morris’s debut feature film – about a quartet of inept jihadists in Northern England. So, does he tackle this controversial subject matter in his classic poignantly hilarious fashion? Well, in a word, yes.
The story follows a group of radicalised Muslims living in Sheffield, who inadvertently drive each other towards a suicide bombing attempt. Omar is the (relative) brains behind the team, best friends with the idiot of the group, Waj, who will just about follow whatever he’s being told. Barry think’s he’s the team leader, a white guy-turned-Jihadist who has some crazy ideas about counter-surveillance and ‘doing whatever it takes for the cause’. And Fessal is busy training his crows to fly bombs into buildings. A final member, Hassan, joins the group but is more intent on rapping across a message than actually taking any action.
We follow the inept group as they record their mission tapes, train in Pakistan and attempt to formulate a coherent plan that doesn’t involve blowing up a mosque (as Barry suggests, to radicalise more Muslims to the cause), blowing up Boots (as Fessal proposes, to get them back for tempting him with condoms which make him want to sleep with white girls) or blowing up the internet (as Waj comes up with). In the meantime we observe as they interact with one another, their friends, neighbours, co-workers and families – showing at each level the various stages of extremism on offer.
Four Lions is an extremely poignant, insightful, consistently hilarious – and ultimately quite touching, look at home-bred terrorists. Apparently Chris Morris was interested in bringing to the front the notion that terrorists were totally integrated within our culture – normal, average everyday family men (here, with thick Northern accents) – rather than strange ‘aliens’ who attack from afar. He hits the nail on the head, whilst also exposing the insane ideas that some of them have, the inconsistent approach to following the rules of the Koran (many take or leave whichever ideas suit them) and the fact that – ultimately – many of them just want to call it all off and go home to their families.
Of course he does all this in such a way that will have you laughing out loud throughout the whole piece. We’re not talking Adam Sandler humour here (not that there’s anything wrong with that – I like me some Happy Gilmore angry man-child action), or slapstick comedy, or anything you would overtly expect. Chris Morris’s take on things is incidentally funny whilst being so damn close to the truth that it hurts. You could actually imagine people trying to buy bomb ingredients off Amazon, or swallowing their sim cards because they’re worried about US spy-satellites tracking them.
And the film isn’t just about making terrorists less like scary symbols, and more like flawed, totally misguided, but nonetheless human beings, it also quite happily points fun at the authorities clumsily on their trail – the rendition scenes are priceless (‘this cargo container is actually the sovereign property of Egypt, so we can do what we like to you here’) and the sniper segment is classic.
Many will criticise Four Lions as being massively controversial and non-pc. Actually, I think it’s nothing of the sort, and it should be noted that these kinds of comments – as was the case with Morris’s ‘controversial’ Brass Eye escapades – are often made without having seen the material in question. How crazy is that? I know that making a satirical spoof about Muslim terrorists sounds like dangerous territory, but you really could not have a more intelligent social and political commentator than Chris Morris on board to make this kind of thing – and his keen observation is perfect here, surviving even the transition to film-length format. Cleverly, whilst the driving points themselves are simultaneously insightful and hilarious, the movie is still remarkably character-driven – so much so that by the end of it all, you really don’t want these guys to pull the triggers. And not because you care about the innocent, faceless bystanders, but because you actually like them.
Of course a massive amount of credit has to be heaped on the acting talent who landed the lead roles. Upcoming young actor Riz Ahmed is arguably the most promising of the bunch, the reasonably smart one – Omar – who (to protect his pride) spurs the group into taking extreme action. His struggle at getting through to his dumb friend Waj, as well as compete with the massively overzealous would-be leader of the group, Barry, combined with his interaction with his wife and fundamentalist brother, all brings a lot of humanity to his part. Telling his young son about his escapades at the terrorist training camp in Pakistan – using The Lion King as an analogy – is a truly touching moment (Simba’s Jihad). And when you see how down to earth he is about defending his wife’s independence against his fundamentalist brother (who insists that playing waterpistols with his son and allowing his wife to speak – rather than be locked up in a closet, is against the Koran), and how street-smart he is when faced with the police at his wife’s workplace, you really root for the guy, giving the final act so much more impact.
Kayjan Novak (who you could easily mistake for the guy from Spooks, who looks like his twin) plays the dumb one – Waj – and is the source of much of the humour in the movie. His opening scene – where he insists on recording a terrorist threat video using a miniature toy gun – is absolutely hilarious. And mainly because he is so easily led but essentially quite well-meaning, you totally feel for him too. I would have loved to see Chris Morris himself take a role in the movie as well, but the only significant ‘white’ part is played perfectly by Nigel Lindsey, who brings his massively paranoid, relentlessly misguided white jihadist Barry to the forefront as a prime candidate for a lobotomy. There’s a classic moment when Omar explains that Barry’s plan to bomb a mosque, in order to radicalise more Muslims, is akin to their having a fistfight, and Barry punching himself in the face in order to help win the fight – and it just shows you how limitlessly stupid, and dangerously stubborn, this radical can be. Morris fans will also note a couple of familiar faces from his previous shows popping up in cameos – whether as one of the snipers or the girl next door.
Four Lions is far better than anything Michael Moore has come up with, poignant and thought-provoking whilst also being massively accessible through its entertaining hilarity. Many may have been worried about Chris Morris’s first foray into moviemaking, but he pulls it off adeptly, taking his shoestring budget and providing us with a powerful look at the terrorists next door, their largely ignored doubts, their misguided beliefs and their frequent mistakes. More of a danger to themselves than anybody else around them, we finally have a very human face painted onto previously dread-inspiring terrorist caricatures, dispelling the exaggerated threat of it all and attempting to give us some insight into the minds of a bunch of fairly human Muslims, who happen to have stumbled onto the wrong path to paradise. Laugh-out-loud funny, it will have you quoting lines almost as much as it will have you philosophically musing the whole sorry state of affairs. And eagerly waiting for Morris to get his claws into his next topical subject-matter. Highly recommended, one of the most important terrorist-themed movies of the decade.
"Women are talking back. People are playing string instruments. It's the end of days."
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