Chris Morris hits a raw nerve in his take on homegrown terror in which the police are as bumbling as the jihadi bombers, writes Andrew Pulver
Chris Morris is still the most incendiary figure working in the British entertainment industry. Even if you have not read reports of Four Lions' premiere at Sundance, it should come as no surprise that Morris – the man behind surreal short film My Wrongs 8245-8249 and 117, and the TV series Nathan Barley, has taken on arguably the most bad-taste subject imaginable: a cell of homegrown jihadi bombers, feverishly plotting martyrdom from terrace houses in Doncaster.
The title is offered up with sledgehammer irony: our crew of wannabe killers are as fervent as football fans, and at one point — in a parody of the 7/7 tube bombers' group hug caught on a station surveillance camera — cuddle up and chant motivational phrases.
But of course it's as contrary an idea as everything else Morris sets up: these are anti-patriots of the most unmistakable kind. Added to which, there are actually five of them. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the intense, coiled-spring leader, Fessel (Adeel Akhtar) his clueless, dozy lieutenant; Waj (Kayvan Novak), an easily confused bruiser; harmless-looking Hassan (Arsher Ali), a late sub when one of the others enters heaven a little earlier than planned; and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), — the most bizarre of all the "lions" — a Caucasian convert to Islam with a streak of ferocious invective and penchant for little hats.
Morris's basic strategy is to undermine and undercut. The jihadis are hopelessly confused and contradictory, caught between their assimilated lifestyle and righteous ideological fire. Omar, for example, can't stop mocking his far more religious, far more peaceable, brother. Fessel, a main vehicle for the doofus comedy, buys bomb-making material with a voice disguised as his own. (Plus he forgets about his beard when he presents himself as a "woman".) Omar and Waj bond by asserting they would happily kill the other if necessary. Barry is constantly trying to insert himself into a group trip to the Middle East, even though it is clear he is not wanted. And when the authorities finally track the group down, Morris doesn't spare them his withering eye: the cops are as incompetent as everyone else, despite their veneer of technological sophistication.
Strangely enough, Four Lions reminded me of Dad's Army, with its blend of buffoonery and cantankerousness, petty power struggles and blurring of the lines between home and combat life. Perhaps it is also indicative of how essentially unadventurous Four Lions is, cinematically speaking; only in the final section, when the bombers run around in hysterically inappropriate fancy dress, does the film approach the demented inspiration with which we associate Morris. Still, in its very existence, Morris has hit on the rawest of nerves, and for that he deserves admiration.