Four young Muslim men with Yorkshire accents are taking turns to address the camera in front of a sagging cloth backdrop. ‘Eh up, you unbelieving kuffar bastards,’ one of them begins. The struggle to hit the right note continues: the speaker, a bulky man with a sweetly confused look, tries to persuade the others that the toy gun he’s cradling looks absurdly small only because he has ‘big hands’. His even more confused looking friend, either for doctrinal reasons or from a poorly thought out wish to conceal his identity, wants to make his statement with a cardboard box on his head. We cut to a spotless suburban kitchen, where the sharpest seeming of the four is watching the footage on a laptop. They’re our martyrdom videos, he says in response to a question from his pretty, sympathetic wife, but this is sort of the blooper reel. He slumps despairingly, muttering that the whole thing’s a blooper reel.
This is the opening scene of Four Lions, and it’s hard to gauge one’s response to it – not so much because it’s a slapstick riff around the idea of the 2005 London bombers, although that’s not not an issue, as because of the expectations trailing Chris Morris, the film’s director and co-writer. A radio and television auteur whose fans tend to be somewhat evangelistic, Morris became famous as the mastermind and frontman of a series of current affairs parodies, On the Hour (1991-92), The Day Today (1994) and Brass Eye (1997, 2001). These were notable for their meticulously detailed exaggerations of broadcasting conventions and their cheerful disdain for moral panics and media self-aggrandisement. Brass Eye was celebrated for hoaxing politicians and celebrities: several hapless Tories, plus Rolf Harris and Noel Edmonds, filmed impassioned warnings against a fictitious drug called ‘cake’ which affected, Edmonds said, ‘the part of the brain called Shatner’s Bassoon’. But the show also hit serious points about hypocrisy, prurience and selective ignorance, with Morris’s newsman depicted leering compulsively at a sexual abuse victim, distinguishing between ‘good Aids’ and ‘bad Aids’ (it depended on how you caught it), and announcing that it was fine for him to use heroin, but less so for ‘builders and blacks’.
Tabloid outrage about Morris’s ‘unspeakably sick’ activities – in the words of the then Labour MP Beverley Hughes – peaked in 2001, when a one-off Brass Eye episode that sent up the hysteria surrounding paedophilia resulted in a small-scale media frenzy. By then, though, he’d mostly abandoned fake news and moved on to more opaque, quasi-dramatic material – principally in a sketch show called Jam (2000), a kind of Finnegans Wake to Brass Eye’s Ulysses. First put together as a radio show, Blue Jam (1997-99), and then filmed in a blurry, off-kilter style, this featured an ensemble of comic actors, seemingly chosen for their unsettling qualities, performing disturbing, dreamlike sketches to the sound of soothing backing tracks. In one, a lonely woman played by Julia Davis torments strangers in order to effect introductions, reaching towards a sobbing mother – who believes herself to have been bereaved by a canoeing accident – and very slowly offering to take her that night to see Cats. Bizarre or extravagant suicides often cropped up: one radio monologue, which Morris reworked pseudonymously in the Observer, concerned a columnist livening up his copy by pledging to kill himself on a set date.
Post-Jam, Morris slowed down considerably. His last TV series, Nathan Barley (2005), was a sitcom about new media types, made in collaboration with Charlie Brooker, who first wrote about the title character five years or so earlier. Though as intricately worked as all of Morris’s stuff, it wasn’t a great success, partly because Barley’s sort weren’t widely recognisable outside Hoxton and Shoreditch; also, the satire wasn’t very topical by the time it reached the screen. If you take Four Lions as a response to the London bombings, you could say that he’s been similarly slow off the mark. But Morris has been telling interviewers that the film is no such thing. Either way, the years he’s spent developing the project – reading up on terrorism, interviewing people and getting to know the Muslim community in Sheffield, where the movie was mostly shot – have plainly had an effect. His earlier satires inflated media stereotypes to grotesque proportions to make points about the media; here he’s more concerned with deflating stereotypes while suppressing points as far as possible.
The plot is driven by – indeed pretty much consists of – the inner dynamics of an incompetent terrorist cell, ‘homegrown’ in an unidentified northern city. Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), the cardboard box man, is a pliant, inscrutable idiot; Waj (Kayvan Novak), the gun-toter, is only marginally less stupid, and takes his cues from Omar (Riz Ahmed), the married and more worldly presumptive leader. The wild card is Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white convert to Islam who wants to run the show and appears to have an ill-suppressed animus against Asians, though he also conforms to the creaky comic type of the none too bright doctrinaire leftist. Both sides of his character come together in his bid for dominance: a plan to bomb a mosque to radicalise the masses. Omar flies with Waj to a training camp in Pakistan, but they’re dismissed there as ‘fucking Mister Beans’. After their return, Faisal accidentally kills himself while transporting explosives. Omar, appalled, has a falling out with Waj that functions much like the final obstacle in a romantic comedy. Then the group reconvenes and cooks up a plan to ‘blow up a load of fit slags’ at the London Marathon, using novelty costumes – Honey Monster, Ninja Turtle – to conceal their suicide belts.
With the exception of Omar, none of the lads has much home life or background to speak of. Nor are they especially pious, again with the exception of Omar, who has theological scruples about his friends’ capacity for decision-making: martyrdom needs to be an act of informed choice, which is one of the reasons he’s upset by Faisal’s death. Omar, in turn, is less pious than his brother-in-law, a gratingly holy pacifist type who loses all the arguments, and is mocked for making his womenfolk sit in a cupboard when men come round for prayers. The one big ideological speech in the movie, a piece of bluster to put Barry in his place, is played for laughs: an excoriation of empty materialism, Gordon Ramsay etc that elicits a well-timed approving shout of ‘Fuck Mini Babybels!’ There are surveillance cameras everywhere, the characters film themselves constantly and their templates for heroism all come from Hollywood films. Omar tells his adoring son a jihadi version of the plot of The Lion King; Waj videos himself being a ‘Paki Rambo’. One of the best gags has Barry trying to pull off a Lethal Weapon-ish act of self-destructive bravado, snarling, ‘This is for real!’ and driving his crap car at a wall, which it taps bathetically.
Having a crap car and thinking you’re Mel Gibson or Osama bin Laden is one strand of the comedy. Another is being thick, and there is a lot of this. The police are thick when they finally show up, arresting the wrong guys and shooting innocent people. Mostly, though, the lads are thick, and after a while this runs thin. There are still laughs to be had, but increasingly the pleasures come from the storytelling and the details. Waj, who’s given a bit more than the dab of pathos needed to keep us interested in him, thinks of blowing himself up as skipping the queue for the rides at Alton Towers. Omar encourages him to think about the rollercoasters – Nemesis, Oblivion – but he fixes on the less resounding rubber dinghy rapids, which becomes the operation’s battle cry.
By this stage, one feels abstract admiration for Morris and his co-writers’ ability to tease gentle situational comedy out of what ought to be incendiary material. The main exception to this is the handful of scenes between Omar and his wife, Sofia (Preeya Kalidas), a well-adjusted nurse at the local hospital who knows and approves of what he’s planning, but whose face remains entirely unreadable. Morris frames them and their equally approving, maybe not completely comprehending little boy to look like a perfect family group from an advert. It’s very Jam-like – recalling, say, the sketch about the couple who occasionally look up from their bourgeois pursuits to wonder why their six-year-old didn’t come home two weeks ago, and if they shouldn’t perhaps call someone about it. ‘You were much more fun when you were going to blow yourself up,’ Sofia says commonsensically in Omar’s moment of crisis, just about subduing a thought along similar lines about Morris.