Director: Chris Morris
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Adeel Akhtar, Kayvan Novak, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay
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“Can I have 12 bottles of bleach please?” You might expect something a little more offensive than that from a Chris Morris film about terrorism. But as Fessel (Akhtar) reveals his strategy for acquiring flammable liquids, he’s anything but offensive. He’s actually quite nice. Four Lions, the directorial debut of the man behind The Day Today and the controversial Brass Eye, plays out as a likeable and conventional buddy comedy. But that makes it even more incendiary.
The Lions are an incompetent terrorist cell based in Sheffield. Omar (Ahmed) is the focused leader, backed up by his dim lieutenant Fessel and the even dimmer Waj (Novak). Completing the group is Barry (Lindsay), a British convert to Islam who tries to compensate for his nationality with added mindless ferocity and lots of swearing. “I’m the invisible Jihadi! They seek him here, they seek him there!” he cries.
Planning some kind of attack, the Lions blunder through life in a haze of misguided optimism. At one point, Omar and Waj head overseas to attend a training camp to become fully fledged. One encounter with a bazooka later, they return home to find a new recruit of Barry’s extreme evangelism, Hassan (Ali), a kid who likes to rap. “I’m the Mujahideen / And I’m making a scene,” he recites.
As we see their birdbrained schemes (like trying to tie C-4 to crows) come to fruition and inevitably fail, Morris dares us to fall in with the group’s easygoing banter and earnest passion. Caught between their fledgling beliefs and the society they’ve grown up in, they describe one in terms of the other. Omar simplifies the endeavour for Waj to understand: “Do you want to be waiting in the queue at Alton Towers? Or riding the rubber dinghy rapids?” “Rubber dinghy rapids!” comes the happy reply. Unavoidably conflicted, these extremists are like a lot of other people in Chris Morris’ world: confused idiots. It’s a bold brush stroke to paint terrorism with, because the sheer incompetence of these men doesn’t dismiss them as laughable: it humanises them.
To put that message across requires some stark shifts in tone throughout Four Lions’ runtime. And the script (co-written by Jesse Armstrong) achieves this by squeezing in side-splitting bursts of wit in between his study of everyday radicalisation. That’s largely possible thanks to the cast’s excellent performances – after his debut in Shifty, Riz Ahmed really gets the chance to cement his acting credentials. Fleshing out family relationships and friendly power struggles, Four Lions’ good-natured, shambling tone builds to a harrowing finale, which nonetheless ramps up the farcical humour alongside the poignant tragedy. Silly costumes, hostage situations and clueless cops (hello to Benedict Cumberbatch) all combine to bring things to a halt in the way that Barry concludes one of the film’s major philosophical arguments: with a provocative punch to the face.
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