It’s not often that we’d begin a review by quoting press notes, but hidden in the pages of bumph we were given on the way in to seeing Four Lions was a Q&A from its co-writer and director, Chris Morris.
Morris is a man who’s no stranger to controversy, with his Brass Eye programmes in the 90s still loved and loathed in sizeable quantities by certain segments of the audience. He recounts in the Q&A for Four Lions a story of his reading about a tale of a plot to ram a US warship by a terrorist cell. They loaded up their boat with explosives, only for it to instantly sink. “I laughed,” he wrote, “I wasn’t expecting that.”
You might not be expecting quite what you get from Four Lions, either.
For Morris has used that anecdote as a springboard for the world’s first comedy film about jihadist terrorists. Just reading those words is likely to send people scurrying in the direction of the letters page of the Daily Mail, and truthfully, Morris’ film isn’t always particularly easy viewing.
But then, it’s not supposed to be.
What he’s fashioned here is a comedy farce about four young men looking to commit a terrorist atrocity on British soil. Lead by Riz Ahmed’s Omar, the four have to hatch their scheme whilst dealing with the triviality of their everyday lives. Omar himself reads (admittedly altered) stories of The Lion King to his young son, while Waj is plainly dim and Barry ends up dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Is Morris humanising terrorists? It’s more like he’s lampooning them, from where we’re sat.
This comes across particularly strongly from the off. Thus, if you’re thinking this all sounds like a troubling and terrifying idea for a film, Morris promptly skewers expectations in the confident, risky opening scene.
In one of the finest beginnings for a comedy movie in recent times, here we see the group attempting to record their video to be played after their death, which instead ends up filling a laptop with what could best be described as outtakes. It’s tear-inducingly hilarious, as is much of the rest of the film where the hapless quartet formulate their plan. Even the moments when two of the group head off to a terrorist training camp early in the film merge to become a very, very funny comedy of errors. You can’t help but find yourself laughing hard at it.
The scene-stealer here is Nigel Lindsay as Barry, the highlight of an impressive cast who has a tendency to get the best lines, and the most-downright funny moments. His character is the most forceful and really comes into his own in a public meeting early in the film, where he turns whatever is being said into something that fits his own rampaging agenda.
Kayvan Novak takes on the comedy sidekick role with real skill too, and Ahmed surely has a strong career ahead of him off the back of his turn as Omar.
The real star here, though, is Chris Morris himself. This is, however you paint it, a brave film to tackle, and it’s one that’s inevitably going to cause a significant amount of uproar. Primarily, we’d suggest, from people who haven’t seen it.
Because those who do will note that what Morris doesn’t veer away from is what the group is actually up to. He injects Four Lions with one or two quick shocking jumps, adding to the tone of unease that’s always present, even when the film appears to be playing things as a straight comedy.
He brings in characters on the edges who argue the other point of view, and he ultimately makes no effort to pull back on or glamorise what it is the group are up to. It’s hard to imagine anyone else coming even close to matching how finely Morris has managed to balance the tone of his film, and he deserves immense praise for managing to do so.
Where he falters slightly is in the tempo of the film itself. Four Lions feels longer than it is, not helped by a notable lull in the middle. For the underlying plot is actually stretched quite thinly, and it doesn’t completely comfortably fit the 102 minute running time. It’s not that we could suggest specific areas to trim, more an overall impression that it’s a slightly longer film than perhaps it ought to be.
Also, at no point does it look like a film that needs to be seen on a big screen. Granted, there’s a sizeable advantage to seeing the film with a big audience – and Four Lions does deserve one – but we can’t imagine much will be lost by it being scaled down to television size.
Four Lions is ultimately set to be a divisive beast, and some will find the subject matter such that they won’t even make it past the door. That’s understandable. Those who do make it into the auditorium, though, will be rewarded by a very funny, quite shocking and daring film that’s a million miles removed from the homogenous brand of Hollywood big budget comedies that’ll be playing on the same screens in a few months’ time.
What’s more, talk of Four Lions, you suspect, will outlast the lot of them.