Dir: Chris Morris; Starring: Riz Ahmed; Nigel Lindsay; Rating: * * * *
What with the Comedy Central cable channel removing references to Muhammad in a recent episode of South Park, this is, ahem, an interesting time for Chris Morris, Britain’s darkest satirist and cultural provocateur, to be releasing his debut feature, Four Lions.
It’s a portrait of five unlikely lads from Doncaster, aspiring jihadists, who are bent on becoming suicide bombers and creating mayhem at the London Marathon. Unlikely? If they weren’t teetotallers you’d say they’re incapable of organizing a piss-up in a brewery.
They include Omar (Riz Ahmed), boss-man of the band of brothers, a smooth-tongued and righteous would-be martyr who tries to explain to his young son that The Lion King is an allegory of holy warfare.
There’s Barry (Nigel Lindsay), straight out of the pages of Viz, a big-bellied white convert to Islam who wants to blow up a mosque in order to radicalise the movement. There’s also Waj (Kayvan Novak). He’s easily confused.
These characters — their idiocies, their contradictions, the risible ways in which they rev themselves up by trying to be “playas” and heroes and bit-part characters from a 2-Pac video — represent Morris’s big idea: that terrorists, far from being ideologically honed, precision-bladed revolutionaries, are just as likely to be a raggle-taggle Dad’s Army of chancers, mouthy dossers and chumpheads.
“I’m the most Al-Qaida of all,” boasts one of them. Another envisages heaven as being like the rubber-dinghy rapids ride at Alton Towers.
Morris, who wrote Four Lions alongside Peep Show’s Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bains, has been meticulous in his research. He’s probably read about, watched footage of and studied the mores and machinations of sleeper cells more than most intelligence officers.
His evocations of the claustrophobic mundanity of the Muslims’ lives, their quarrelous banter, their flimsily pick ‘n’ mix approach to the Koran all feel painfully, brilliantly real.
Like his The Day Today partner-in-arms Armando Iannucci did in last year’s In The Loop, Morris uses jittery hand-held cameras to create a faux-documentary effect. This also emphasises the experimental, almost-improvisatory way in which the bombers stumble from tough-talking theory to actual incendiarists.
A long-time anatomist of the ludicrous ways in which media organizations shape news stories to fit pre-existing narrative structures, he’s especially astute — and funny — on how the men perform a version of masculinity and ‘spin’ their versions of theological truth via home-made videos.
In his best work — the television series Jam, and the radio series Blue Jam — he largely ditched gags and comic pay-offs in order to summon up the woozy and oftentimes creepy ambience of contemporary British life.
In Four Lions too, the clamminess and paranoia of the jihadists as they get closer to apocalypse is presented, through sudden zooms and surveillance-camera footage, as just a slightly more extreme version of the general culture of fear and suspicion that underwrites the ubiquity of CCTV on every High Street.
If the bombers are mainly crap, so are the police and security forces, who not only raid the wrong ‘terrorist’ home but mistake a bear for a Wookie with disastrous results.
This isn’t exactly moral equivalence. But it’s pretty close to a philosophy of ‘a plague on all your houses’. Much of the best satire comes from that kind of despairing, almost nihilist position.
Here though, it serves to defang the film. Morris, like his hero Peter Cook, sees the world as absurd rather than enraging. He depicts the bombers as absurd, too, bumblers and blowhards high on their own rhetoric.
There’s no place in this schema for them to harbour sincere grievances or (however obnoxious) political convictions.
And so the finale, in which the bombers run around London uncertain about whether or not to go through with their planned explosions, becomes a comedy of errors as much as a tragedy or an allegory. It feels like a fudge.