I collapsed halfway through my turn, reading a page of The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad to my English class, when I got to the bit where they talk about scraping him off the pavement with a shovel and I just couldn’t read any more. I was laughing too hard. It’s the way they tell ’em.
Over 15 years later, and I’m back in stitches again. The tale is not much different, but the teller is someone else. This time it’s Chris Morris (Brass Eye, The Day Today) in his directorial debut. Once the most controversial man on television, Chris Morris started researching this long before the 7/7 bombings. Having been sacked by both, neither Channel 4 nor the BBC would touch his script, though Film Four and Warp Productions stepped in after Morris tried to raise funds directly from fans. Good job too, since Time Magazine listed it in the top 10 films of that year, and reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. If you’re going to make a comedy about Jihadi terrorists, at least make a good one.
So Four Lions begins, and it’s chuckleworthy from the outset. Appropriately compared by Morris to Dad’s Army, it follows the most incompetent bunch of Islamic radicals imaginable. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the brightest of the bunch, which isn’t saying much. His loving wife is outright cheerful about his plans to blow himself up. His friends – Waj (Kayvan Novak) and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) – are painfully stupid. Barry (Nigel Lindsay) is even more idiotic – a loudmouthed white convert who if he wasn’t planning to blow up a mosque (to radicalise the moderates) would be moaning about “bloody immigrants” – and his eye-watering outbursts steal the film.
The attempt by Omar and Waj to join a terrorist training camp in Pakistan backfires in the most literal way, and soon they’re back in the UK and planning an outrage which can only go horribly, horribly wrong.
The film gets funnier as it goes along, skipping neatly between dry satire, irony, slapstick and broad sitcom humour. Even though the excellent performances bring out the warmth and humanity in the characters, like Shaun of the Dead, there’s just not enough regard for human life to get bogged down in the potential horror of the situation. The inevitable violence of the finale is closer in tone to Home Alone than Saving Private Ryan: you won’t be losing any sleep over this.
Four Lions did well for a film with such a limited release. Inevitably, most distributors wouldn’t touch it – especially in the US. It’s a shame, though, because it meant a lot of people missed out on what is ultimately a warm, hilarious, and oddly gentle film.