* * * *
(Dir. Chris Morris, 2009)
Abandon premonition, forget right from wrong. Four Lions is a laugh for, and never at, our worst collective nightmare as British citizens. For his debut feature film, the outrageous Chris Morris has turned his boundless comic gaze to terrorism, swapping paedophile for jihad jokes, strapping us to his own cinematic explosive. This is terrific and terrible stuff.
Omar (Riz Ahmed) is a British Muslim turned terrorist, enraged by the commerce obsessed, secular society to which he no longer wishes to belong. His various clownish companions include his gullible brother, Waj, and a white, working class man, Barry, bearded like Bin Laden. Their communion has no religious context and when Omar rouses all with an anti-Western speech, Waj concurs:"Yeah... fuck mini babybells". Omar is a symbol for the difference between wit and intelligence. Bilingual, he sarcastically bullies and nourishes his recruits with some of Chris Morris's best metaphor-gag writing, playing both general and stand-up comedian. But he lives according to an idiotic dogma, listening to his "heart" and ignoring his "head", a strategic triumph of the movie, keeping sympathy for terrorists at bay.
When Omar and Waj fail to impress at a training camp (not the World Cup sort), they find themselves back in Britain, eager to make amends. The planning, or rather procrastinating, unfolds in Sheffield (close enough to Leeds, where the 7/7 attacks were planned) until the time comes for the amateurs to make their mark on history. This is the London Marathon - an original denouement - where bombs are hidden beneath silly fancy dress costumes to bring about serious consequences. In an explicit reference to 7/7, the perpetrators are ridiculed in their apparel, engaging in a group hug that omits no spirituality or determination.
But before they make it to the capital, a more amusing interim sees the group driving down the M6 to their fate, singing along to Toploader's 'Dancing in the Moonlight'. The shape of Britain and its infrastructure is exact. There are hospitals and homes, high-street shops and newsagents, agriculture and industry, and copious snapshots of a multicultural society that make this sad, side-splitting black comedy anxiously real.
Omar's family are as startling as any of the script's spiky one-liners. There is an intelligent, modern and beautiful wife who refuses when told to stand in a different room by a conservative Muslim neighbour and visitor. Her relationship with Omar seems a little too healthy considering his gross ambition, and the fantasist's brainwashing of their small son. Omar's innovative bedside storytelling borrows (manipulates) wisdom from the Koran's Mohamed as well as Disney's Simba.
Four Lions is an assault on the heart and the rib-cage, frightening and tickling in equal measure. It is debatable as to whether it is liberally important or socially irresponsible for this film to have been omnipresent, nationwide, in recent weeks. Just as mind-boggling is whether the humour is too soon for this post-9/11 world, or whether its power has arrived too late. By removing this sense of 'post', and making clever fun directly from the horror of inane extremism, Morris escapes with the benefit of the doubt; unlike his characters, who are brutally condemned to neither certainty nor pity nor heaven.