Four Lions, from the mind of Brass Eye/The Day Today genius Chris Morris, is that rarest of cinema commodities: something different. Earlier this year a film about a man sewing people’s mouths to other people’s anuses was released, and among seasoned viewers barely a bored eyebrow was raised; another, whose content contains purportedly the most controversial rape scene in film history, is upcoming and anticipated largely with detached groans and eye-rolls. But here is Four Lions, here is a film that is genuinely fresh. Rather than aiming solely for the gutter – which it hits in esteemed fashion with some of the most erudite dick and fart jokes in years – it also reaches for the stars, skewering almost everyone in its satirical sights and eliciting tears of laughter and pathos in the process.
Omar (Riz Ahmed, in a hopefully star-making performance) is the leader of a tiny stand-alone cell of British-born-and-based mujahideen, planning their entry into heaven by way of martyrdom as they blow themselves up at… a Boots chemist’s, perhaps? Well, they haven’t quite decided where yet. His brethren are Waj (Kayvan Novak), an imbecile whose idea of Firdaus is a ride at Alton Towers theme park; Barry (Nigel Lindsay), an Englishman convert to Islam in desperate need of a sense of humour; Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), a camera-shy, softly spoken guy unsure of the mission, and also a very poor impressionist; and Hassan (Arsher Ali), a wannabe rapper convinced of the worthiness of suicide bombing by Barry’s unusual methods of indoctrination. While this sorry lot look on paper like a typical motley crew in another stupid buddy comedy, they are elevated by a combination of sharp writing and excellent, naturalistic performances.
Indeed, one of the major elements that sets Four Lions apart is that emphasis on keeping it real. A clash of so many varied ideas could all so easily spiral out of control, but while the overall premise and events of the plot are almost all completely absurd, an insistence on a documentary feel grounds the film throughout. Omar and his band are shot in a mixture of sharp zooms, medium close-ups and detached long shots, and their performances overall seem improvised (although given how neatly each scene fits together, they probably weren’t). Most of the music – with the notable exception of Hassan and Waj’s hilarious rhymes, and the repeated use of a terrible pop classic – is simple Arabic-sounding tones and used only in rare cases during scene transitions, allowing the characterisations and dialogue of these lovable idiots to shine.
The key to the film, however, is in the scenes with Omar’s family, and one imagines this is where many viewers will lose interest and/or respect. His disapproving older brother, sweet and supportive wife and doting son could all come out of a season of EastEnders (and the actress who plays his wife is presently, as it happens, acting in EastEnders)… but this is precisely the point. The spectre of terrorism and terrorists, so puffed-up and sensationalised in the news media, is brought crashing to earth in a comparison with the preposterous unreality of a soap opera. At the same time, folks who watch soap operas on a regular basis probably swallow most of what popular news media throws at them, from nukes in Iraq to the inherent perversion of Britain’s footballers; Morris grasps the opportunity to bring that greatest fear of the day as close to home as possible, and show that, you know, these guys maybe aren’t all that different from us. There is an outstanding scene between Omar and his wife at the hospital where she works, a showcase for both the superb script and note-perfect performers that sums up the entire film before you can even realise it.
As for the jokes, there are often several classics in a given scene, and they cover the gamut – encompassing ridiculously rabid anti-Semitism, making fun of English and Asian accents, brutal slapstick, and of course the above-mentioned toilet humour (which, in a clever twist, is often in Urdu). Alongside all this are the innumerable perceptive lines that are at once amusing and disheartening, or in some cases deeply moving. One can only imagine that the process of writing was arduous: first to think of something funny, then to put it into a character’s voice, then to make it work within the framework of a scene, and finally to fit all this into the fabric of the film as a whole. Rather than trying to select some of the finer gems, it’s probably better to simply allow you to experience them fresh as you watch the film – much of their greatness is in their delivery, particularly by the fantastically poker-faced Barry. Anyway, if I tried we’d be here all night. It’s the kind of film where if you see it with friends, you start quoting it to each other immediately upon exiting the cinema and continue for days, months and quite likely years afterwards.
At bottom, it’s simply extraordinary that a comedy film about a group of suicide bombers was made at all, let alone one so expertly crafted. When it ended, I felt a rare sense of exhiliration – at having been completely enveloped in the film’s world, at having laughed myself silly, and at having witnessed something so brilliantly subversive it might even one day deserve comparison with that great master of absurdist cinema, Buñuel. I can only hope that Morris, a renowned near-recluse and non-participant in the modern media circus, suddenly starts to take pleasure in being highly productive, and we don’t have to wait another ten years for his next slice of Zeitgeist-distilling greatness.