Took me a while to get around to seeing this and, as a fan of Chris Morris, I feel deeply ashamed that it took this long. Four Lions is a film that was always going to court controversy. It tells the story of a small group of extremist Muslims from Sheffield, all with local accents, who are planning to strike a blow against Western culture through the medium of suicide bombing. Not exactly the sort of subject you’d see Adam Sandler approaching in his next comedy. No, instead he’ll make something far more distasteful. So, is Four Lions in bad taste? Is it controversial? Does the Crow get blown up? Click the link to find out…
Omar (Riz Ahmed) is a disillusioned young Pakistani man living in Sheffield that has grown to despise Western culture. He is planning his own holy war on the UK and is wholly committed to it. Unfortunately for him, less so for the general public, he is surrounded by a group of bumbling morons. First is his dim witted friend Waj (Kayvan Novak) who wants nothing more than to ride the rubber dinghy rapids in the afterlife, which he’ll be assured a place in for taking part in a holy war. Self appointed second in command is Barry (Nigel Lindsay). A white Muslim convert and by far the most extreme of the group. He’s borderline psychotic but somehow his unrelenting commitment to his cause almost makes him likeable. Almost. He’s very much the antagonist of the film. Lastly there’s Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) who is a very naive simpleton. They later recruit a 5th member named Mahmood (Mohammed Aqil) who serves to be an extra source of annoyance for Omar.
Believe it or not the film actually manages to get you to like these characters and you actually get behind Omar a little when you see just what a group of buffoons he has been lumped in with. Not to say that he isn’t prone to messing up either. Obviously the potential horror of what they’re planning always looms but you spend the film hoping that something will stop them or that a change of heart will come about. By the final act there’s some genuine moments that really test your sympathies for Omar and Waj. Waj especially has a tragic feel because of his simple nature. Don’t get me wrong, what they’re doing is a terrible thing, but at no point does the film try to tell you that they are in any way doing the right thing. The comedy comes mostly from their interactions and the situations they find themselves in.
Chris Morris is an artist of satire, easily the best in the world today. He is never afraid to tackle any subject and quite often likes to leave you questioning if you should have found what you’re watching funny. At the same time he can weave an interesting story that has a real emotional core to it and can switch from being hilarious and madcap to deeply chilling from one scene to the next. For example we have the characters running around with their home made bombs trying not to shake them too much by running in long squatting strides, also managing to convince a friend that they were doing fitness training which he then copies. Soon after we have a scene where Omar and his wife are talking very casually about his plans. It’s her very relaxed attitude that strikes a chilling chord here. You expect the wife/girlfriend character to be trying to talk sense into him, to be trying to stop him. That doesn’t happen here at all. Although a later scene gives you the hint that she may wish she had.
The film’s ability to pose questions and leave them for yourself to mull over runs throughout. It’s a key component of a lot of Chris Morris’ work, be it The Day Today, Brass Eye or the much under-appreciated Jam. He loves to make you interpret the actions and scenarios of the characters whilst toying with your emotional investment in them. The very documentary style that the film is shot in constantly makes you feel like an outside observer watching as a group of people gradually bumble their way to a horrible fate. This is used very well when we start seeing night time scenes shot on infra red cameras making you subconsciously feel like perhaps the police or other such authorities may be on to them. A glimmer of hope that something may stop their planned Jihad.
The film is challenging but it is not perfect. For the most part everyone except Omar is portrayed as some sort of fool with only a few exceptions. When police officers are encountered they come across as the sort of bumbling idiots you’d expect from any number of typical comedies out there. I suppose this helps add to the feeling that no-one will stop them but it does get a little silly when even the main negotiator (a cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch by the way) manages to make a pigs ear of his task. Also the film nearly relies on you being a fan of Morris’ brand of dark satire. It’s certainly not a film likely to bring in many of those unfamiliar with his work and as such will leave a very smart and , dare I say it, important film from being viewed.
Four Lions truly is an excellent film though and it’s one that deserves to be seen. It manages to expose the issue of extremism without ever saying anything to condemn those of the Muslim faith. The picking and choosing of which elements of the Koran to follow by the central characters is all to typical of a lot of modern Muslims, for better or worse, but is also key to why extremists end up the way they do. They take the parts that they feel validate their ruinous actions and by doing so make life harder for those that follow their faith sensibly. It’s fine to be part of a religion and pick out what works for you, it’s the basis of all personal boundary expansion, but it’s the elements misinterpreted that cause trouble. Four Lions is at it’s core about a group of people who have somehow failed to find the Koran’s true teachings and as such have failed themselves with potentially disastrous results. It’s also a fecking funny film and a razor sharp satire which is exactly what you should expect from Chris Morris.