Sunday, June 06, 2010

Review - Four Lions

With Four Lions, Chris Morris is making his feature debut as a director and the result is every bit as bold and uncompromising as we have come to expect from him. The notorious satirist, who brilliantly spoofed TV news with The Day Today and caused a media storm with his Brass Eye paedophilia special, has chosen Islamic extremism as the subject of his new film, following a group of would-be suicide bombers as they prepare for their forthcoming jihad. The film opens with the group making their video testimonies, which are disrupted by a toy machine gun that looks ridiculously small on camera and debates over which of them is "the most Al-Qaeda," and Morris subsequently charts their progress through a Pakistan training camp, experiments with homemade bombs and arguments about what exactly their target should be.

This might not sound like natural comedy material, but that's presumably why Morris has ventured into this territory in the first place, to mine fresh laughs in an area that other filmmakers have shied away from and to make light of a subject that only inspires terror and fear in the public. Four Lions is set in Sheffield and uses the standard comedy template of a gang of likable losers getting into something that's so much bigger than they ever realised. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the leader of the group and, by some distance, he's the most level-headed character, which isn't hard when you look at the numbskulls he has aligned himself with. The second most prominent character is Barry (Nigel Lindsay), an ignorant, permanently enraged white Muslim convert who has fixated on the idea that the best possible target would be a mosque, in order to radicalise fellow Muslims across the globe.

Of the bunch, only these two seem fully committed to the cause, and one of the weaknesses of Four Lions' screenplay is the sketchiness of its characterisations. Morris doesn't elaborate on the reasons behind his characters' actions, and the rest of the group seem to be going along for the ride purely because they are suggestible enough to follow whatever Omar and Barry tell them to do. Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) is an amiable dope whose big idea is to attach explosives to trained crows and fly them into "one of those buildings that's full of Jews and slags," while Hassan (Arsher Ali) is a teenager hired by Barry after causing a stir with fake explosives at a public debate. However, the most stupid character on display is Waj (Kayvan Novak), a childlike figure who can't even tell the difference between rabbits and chickens. Morris is sometimes guilty of writing Waj as too stupid to be believable, although the manner in which Omar treats this character allows the director to make his point about the way extremists manipulate those weaker than them.

But what exactly is Omar's motive? At times, even he seems unsure of the path he has chosen, and I was mystified by the glimpse Morris allows us into the comfortable middle-class home he shares with his supportive wife and young son. "You were much more fun when you were going to blow yourself up, love," Sophia (Preeya Kalidas) tells Omar during one of his many moments of self-doubt. These gaps in Morris' characterisation leave Four Lions feeling a little raggedy and slapdash, and the film is uneven in its distribution of laughs, but it's worth waiting through the dry patches for those moments when Morris hits the target. He has a brilliant knack for blending surreal elements into dramatic scenes, such as Omar explaining the jihad to his son by using The Lion King as a metaphor or a pair of police snipers trying to ascertain whether a wookie and a bear are the same thing. The dialogue is grounded is a very prosaic reality, mirroring the small-time mentality of the characters (Fessal wants to blow up Boots because "they sell condoms that make you want to bang white women"), and Morris' direction is superbly detailed, with great little touches like the glimpsed news headline, "Asian man's head falls out of tree."

The most interesting thing about Four Lions, however, is the way Morris sacrifices laughs in the final twenty minutes and makes us realise that he is going to follow through on the harsh realities of his characters' choices come what may. His direction becomes energised with a nervous pulse, and as the final reckoning looms, Four Lions develops a sense of pathos, and these absurd characters suddenly become oddly sympathetic figures. "I'm sorry lads," Waj states, "I don't really know what I'm doing," and in these final moments Morris lays bare the futility and misguided nature of the violence they have put so much preparation into. It is a daring filmmaking choice, and it pays off, delivering a powerful and resonant climax. By exposing his characters' foolishness and underlining the way they have painted themselves into a corner through confusion and peer pressure, Morris cuts through the ridiculous comedy of their bumbling to end on a note that feels painfully, tragically real.