DIR: Chris Morris • WRI: Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, Simon Blackwell • PRO: Mark Herbert, Derrin Schlesinger • DOP: Lol Crawley • ED: Billy Sneddon • DES: Dick Lunn • CAST: Kayvan Novak, Riz Ahmed, Preeya Kalidas, Nigel Lindsay, Arsher Ali
Four Lions is Chris Morris’ first feature, co-written with Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, the creators of Peep Show, alongside some additional writing provided by In the Loop’s Simon Blackwell. Morris’ previous barbed satirical TV output is well complimented here by his collaborators as Four Lions opens out through satire and embraces that particular human condition of comic tragedy that so often lies behind failure. It’s a decent debut from Morris and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here.
The film follows the bungling exploits of a sub-par band of Jihadi terrorists from Sheffield who set out to become suicide bombers during the London Marathon. The group consist of Omar (Riz Ahmed), his brother Waj (Kayvan Novak), Barry (Nigel Lindsay), Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) and Hassan (Arsher Ali). Omar is a family man who believes what he is doing is his destiny. Waj is in on it out of blind idolisation of his brother. Barry is a Caucasian convert with a nihilistic personality that needs to yolk his anger onto a cause so as to channel it. Faisal is a few chapters short of a Koran. And Hassan is roped in after threatening to blow up a political meeting with a set of party poppers strapped around him.
After Omar and Waj return from their calamitous experience at a training camp in Pakistan, Omar devises his plan to bring attention to their cause by donning ridiculous costumes and, under the guise of charity runners, running in the London Marathon and blowing themselves up. As they are about to join the marathon an inquisitive policeman remarks to them that, ‘You’ll die in those outfits’, which elicits the response: ‘Yeah. But it’s for a good cause’.
The film balances Morris’ trademark acerbic social insights and invective ridicule with more playful scenes of out-and-out physical comedy. Armstrong and Bain capture the nuances and rhythm of dialogue and their skill in creating character comedy is on display here. There’s some excellent verbal farce as well and the banter results in some amusing gag jousting.
As you would expect from Morris, the tone is never quite clear as it throws up some skilfully constructed jarring scenes of tonal contrasts that produce conflicting emotional responses. There are also some touching scenes as when Omar goes to say goodbye to his wife. Indeed the family dynamics produce some of the film’s most tender and dramatic scenes.
Morris incorporates particular aspects of reality into the film and exposes cack-handed preposterousness with a deft comic touch, such as during the marathon when the police are trying to ‘shoot the bear’, and instead shoot a wookie, and the resultant discussion over whether a wookie is a bear – an allusion to Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead on 22nd July, 2005 by police who mistook him for one of four would-be suicide bombers who had attacked London’s transport system the previous day. Such displays of incompetent stupidity grounds so much of Morris’ output.
The film is well cast and Ahmed and Lindsay give the two standout performances. Although Preeya Kalidas as Omar’s wife Sophia brings an underplayed tension to the few scenes she’s in that brings the terrorist aspect onto a deeper emotional level that is acutely painful. There are some structural flaws with the film and two or three scenes are overly contrived in order to crowbar in comic set ups. It flags a bit in the middle and stumbles on in search of its culmination. But for the most part the film contains some fine moments and fulfils its aim of exposing the absurd nature of reality.
Four Lions is more mainstream than you would expect from someone with Chris Morris’ history. But I think this was necessary for him to be able to tackle the subject matter at hand and produce a film that at its heart deals quite sympathetically with that most curious of matters – human failure. The film’s final scenes are bathed in a bleak humour in the face of the brutal futility of the situation as matters come to a head. And by this stage, Morris has done enough with his humanized terrorists to make you care, which makes it all the more striking considering where our sympathies lie.
Four Lions is released on 7th May 2010