Last month, I reviewed here David Baddiel’s flaccid movie about inter-racial identities, The Infidel, and complained about its pussy-footing approach to matters Islamic. Well, now we have Four Lions, another comedy set on roughly the same turf, directed and co-written by the satirist Chris Morris, whose credibility within the “cutting-edge comedy community” is unimpeachable. The aim of this exercise seems to be to see the funny side of a bunch of home-grown Muslim suicide bombers and our reaction to them.
Is this a laughing matter? Morris, who ran the gauntlet of tabloid horror when he famously spoofed the hysteria surrounding paedophilia on his TV show Brass Eye in the 1990s, seems to think so. He told the Sunday Times that the film would seek to do for Islamic terrorism what Dad’s Army, the classic BBC comedy, did for the Nazis by showing them as “scary but also ridiculous”. In a director’s statement produced in the production notes given to the critics, he says: “A bomb goes off. We tear about like headless chickens. Then we try to calm down. We lock the door on our dread…We change our laws. We restrict our freedoms. We lash out at strangers. Brilliant. Of course we long to laugh at our fears but we don’t know how.”
But is this true? How exactly are “we” lashing out at strangers? More importantly from the point of view of this film, do we really “long to laugh at our fears”? If you think that we are, and that we do, then you are Morris’s audience. But I’m not convinced. Denying the possibility of a real threat, pretending that there’s nothing really to be afraid of, that bombers are idiots and halfwits, that we ourselves might be to blame for our scattergun over-reactions — now that seems to me to be a far greater problem.
Morris is beloved of media types whose understanding of Islam, Islamism and terrorism varies between skin-deep and non-existent. Anything which sounds like a good chuckle behind the bike shed is fine by them. They will laugh at Morris simply on principle: here is one of their tribe who has had the contrarian guts, the courage, to go where others fear to tread, who hits “raw nerves”, etc etc. The points being made are, actually, beside the point: sending people and situations up is all that matters.
What Morris does, he does with skill. The dialogue in this movie is sharp, fast and a million miles from the “Doctor, doctor, I think I’m a Jew” humour of Baddiel’s effort. The performances are good, the film is well structured and the everyday observations ring true. The four lions (in fact there are five) are a group of Doncaster would-be jihadists whom we first meet trying to make a video message prior to an attempt to blow up the London Marathon. Other than one of their number, a white malcontent of the kind to be found in the Socialist Workers Party, they could be the 7/7 London bombers. They’re kept in line by Omar (Riz Ahmed) who, of all of them, has a spurious kind of authority founded on a half-baked, half-formulated sense of political grievance. Dry-runs and preparations reveal the sheer idiocy, the bumbling incompetence of the group. They couldn’t organise themselves out of a paper bag. The police are revealed to be pretty stupid too, shooting the wrong man and then using tortured jobsworth logic to explain away the error.
The general cluelessness of both conspirators and the forces of law and order is the source of the film’s humour from the start and it never really deviates from this narrow vein. But the Dad’s Army comparison is wrong. First, I don’t remember the Nazis looming very large in that much-loved series. The humour arose from the amateurishness of a group of ordinary men whose honourable motives were never in doubt. It was rightly assumed that we were with them all the way, that we saw ourselves and our relatives in them, and that we felt enormous affection for the sometimes cackhanded ways in which they attempted to rise to the occasion. The self-appointed army in Four Lions, for all the humour wrung out of their dismal efforts, want to annihilate us. Laughing at their buffoonery doesn’t detract from this fact one iota, and it ultimately makes watching the movie an oddly hollow experience.
Are terrorists so incompetent anyway? Apparently, Morris started to think about the film when he read of a plot to ram a US warship with a boat full of explosives that sank. There was also that cut-and-paste ramming of a car into the front of Glasgow Airport. Ha, bloody ha. The truth is that Islamic terrorism has shown itself to be extraordinarily well organised for a good 20 years now.
Go ahead and laugh at Four Lions but in the real world of 9/11, 7/7, Madrid and Bali, you will truly be seeking refuge in a fool’s paradise if you want to pretend that they don’t know what they’re doing.