At face value, the idea of a black comedy following the efforts of a group of second generation Muslims in modern Britain taking up Jihadism and suicide bombing doesn’t exactly sound tasteful or well judged, let alone a gold mine for potential gags. But one underestimates Chris Morris’ incredible but ulnar nerve smashing sense of humor if they think his debut feature film would be anything other than horribly funny while somehow making a very serious point, a poignant message hidden within the bowels of farce and politically incorrect high jinks. Always controversial, Morris had been in the shadow zone of public consciousness for the better part of a decade since the public outcry at his genius satire Brass Eye boiling up further acid as follow up to widely acclaimed news parody The Day Today. Backed by long term writing partners Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Sam Bain, Four Lions represents his ferocious and defiant return to the big time.
Naturalized Brits Omar (Riz Ahmed), a loving family man, Waj (Kayvan Kovak), his intellectually challenged best friend, Faisal (Adeel Ahktar) a simple minded and out of his depth shopkeeper, and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a highly vocal convert once of nationalist mindset, answer the call of radical clerics and join the ‘holy war’ against Western Civilization. This involves Omar and Waj traveling to a training camp in Pakistan while Barry and Faisal attempt to set up a terrorist cell at home in Sheffield. The excursion to the Middle East ends in disaster when Omar inadvertently blows up his own side’s mountain stronghold, prompting a sheepish return to Britain where they find Barry has recruited a hapless fifth member, loud mouth Hassan (Arsher Ali), and has generally done his best to ruin any chances they have of making a mark for the cause.
While acquiring explosives and plotting their target, the group successfully hinder their own efforts with a series of gaffes including allowing a stoner neighbor into their safe house and totaling their car while attempting to move the bombs. Having lost one of their number to a hideous accident, the group fall out spectacularly but come back together again with Omar setting a worthy goal; the London Marathon. Naturally of course, given that none of the remaining four have any idea what they’re doing with varying degrees of self-assurance and delusion, the plan does not pan out particularly well and results in a series of bizarre accidents and circumstances which ultimately expose the painfully futile and meaningless heart of their endeavors.
It’s this universal theme of broken dreams that serves as the real core of Four Lions, a suitably sad and tragic element that shines through a script densely packed with hilarity, irony and sarcasm. Viewed simplistically as a comedy, the film serves its purpose and then some, delivering hefty belly laughs through a combination of slapstick, observational satire and some wonderful dialogue that is both riotously funny and worryingly realistic. Despite the subject matter, there is no hint of mean spirit or nasty character torture, as the protagonists are not simply wheeled out to be punished for their extremist cause. They are treated as real people, stupid people undoubtedly, but real none the less. While this makes for brilliant viewing for the first two acts, it leaves a pall of sadness over the third as the grand plan is executed and falls apart at the seams, sparking a last minute hesitation which goes the way of good reason when disaster becomes irreversible. Having found out far too late what really matters, the last stand for the cell becomes bitterly and darkly ironic and all the more suitably worthless.
Of course, it’s impossible to really examine Four Lions without taking a hard line over said subject and the connotations this carries. The culture of fear in regards to the war on terror and potential repeats of 9/11 and the London bombings should really make a film such as this, let alone a comedy, utterly unpalatable. After all, it surely would be making fun of a very real threat and issue far too sensitive to be taken in impartially. But the key to success and avoiding bad taste is the focus of the comedy and the intelligently made point behind it all. On a serious note, the film humanizes the suicide bombers as being naïve and easily swayed, even good in some cases but seduced by false ideas preached by men of cynical exploitation recruiting them to a cause that is questionable, unethical, and truly evil in the eyes of any God they claim to represent the interests of. It’s an honest and non-patronizing view, and one that means a great deal of pathos exists within the otherwise amoral material, from the disturbingly affectionate interactions between Omar and his dotting wife and young child, or Waj’s correlation between being martyred and the water dinghy rapids ride at Alton Towers. Somehow, you just feel sorry for them for being so wrong.
There’s even room for some further harsh shots at the culture they are targeting for retribution, hardly a rarity in recent British cinema, which sees the farcical material extend into the actions of the police and intelligence service as they somehow manage to miss the inept crew posing a very really threat and instead redeem the bitterness at those in authority. The Thick of It’s Alex MacQueen as a hypocritically jumpy politician and a cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch as a hostage situation negotiator show the same vein of stupidity and ill-logic as the ‘bad guys’ which while again humorous, poses a real sting. The arrest of Omar’s hard line Islamist brother and a massive error by on-site police marksman edge more on the black irony side of comedy, and carry horribly serious implications in regards to recent history of counter-terrorism. Cringes come with the chuckles, but it is never cheap and always pointed.
The cast is mostly unknown to wider audiences, but carry the heart of the film as well as displaying crucially superb comic timing and instincts. While Kayvan Novak and Nigel Lindsay are wonderfully funny in their respective roles, the best performance comes from Riz Ahmed’s portrayal of Four Lions’ most complex and best written character Omar. Nominally smarter and less prone to extreme behavior than his comrades, Omar has a good job and a good family while clearly showing the intelligence to make one question his loyalties. His caring attitude for Lenny-esque buddy Waj, much like an older brother, is touching and shows that despite being swayed by the cries of Jihad he has his heart in the right place, making his urge for destructive self-sacrifice not only dubious but completely avoidable and utterly tragic. Ahmed conveys this superbly, with the same skill for drama as comedy. Further good work from Adeel Ahktar and Craig Parkinson, as Omar’s fitness obsessed colleague, keeps a smile firmly on one’s face.
Keep in mind that Morris’ track record has seen him produce a satire on pedophilia-phobia culture and coerce celebrities into making mindless public announcements about blatantly fictional narcotics and it’s really not a surprise that he had the confidence to tackle such thick and complicated material, nor that he had the ability to make his first effort at motion picture directing a hysterical success in every sense of the word. Carefully avoiding missteps with well conceived gags and sublime social commentary, a superb script and great comic cast insure a black comedy that troubles one’s conscience that by its immorality but by its meaningful statement on the childlike naivety of us mere mortals. Hilarious, troubling, and ultimately brilliant viewing.