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Chris Morris plays with fire. It seems nowadays that whenever it’s passed around that he’s working on something, tabloid speculation flares up insisting that people will be outraged and appalled. In a way, he brings it on himself. His Brasseye special which parodied the news media’s coverage of paedophiles is probably his most notorious work and generated enough uproar for people to mistakenly label him a wind-up merchant. Now, with Four Lions we have a comedy about a group of Islamic terrorists. Not what you would call family friendly, but it’s always been assumed by Morris that one shouldn’t be afraid to generate humour from so-called taboo subjects, providing there is a point to be made and one isn’t merely being frivolous or offensive for the sake of it.
It’s clear that Chris Morris doesn’t take the subject of Islamic extremism lightly or as something to riff on to get a cheap laugh, but as Morris says “Terrorism is about ideology, but it’s also about berks.” There is a kind of fly-on-the-wall realism amidst the buffoonery, similar to something like Peep Show (Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain worked on the script with Morris). It’s also obvious that Morris has carefully researched the topic as much as possible. Making a film with the subject matter of Four Lions is like emotional tightrope walking. One foot wrong and you risk cheapening the memories of great tragedies for the sake of just getting a laugh.
It’s testament to the quality of the film, therefore, that those who seem to leave the house every day looking for something to be offended by have been left wanting by Four Lions. There are no obvious crude gags about 9/11, no contrived puns about Osama Bin Laden and no culturally moronic jokes about Islamic culture. Ultimately, its purpose is as a comedy of errors, in which a group of tragically deluded imbeciles become capable of intense evil and chaos through sheer stupidity and at the expense of their own innate moral compasses. Whereas Brasseye sought to tear down media pretensions, Four Lions runs alongside the things which consensus has right. Yes, we are right to fear the terrorists, but we should not be afraid to ridicule them as the cretins they truly are.
It’s also a testament to the film that we’re never invited to ‘understand’ the people we are watching, as if true insight into what makes a mass murderer tick could be gained in 90 minutes and for the price of an admission ticket. Instead we are merely left to guess at what has given these characters their initial motivation, whether it’s a childish desire for the luxuries of heaven (one scene has two characters comparing suicide bombing to fast-tracking past the queues at Alton Towers) or some sense of religious or ethnic persecution, Four Lions doesn’t let us know much past the basics and doesn’t bother us with pretentious and ill-informed psychology. It is all the better, and funnier, for it.
Reading back over this review, I have a worrying feeling that I’ve given the impression that Four Lions is an intellectual affair that shouldn’t really be labelled as a comedy. This could not be further from the truth. I first saw it in the cinema, during which time the laughs of the audience were constant and loud to the point where it became difficult to hear the next joke. There is, however, a noticeable sense of tragedy to the film which is completely necessary to prevent it becoming a standard slapstick affair in which the backdrop of Islamic extremism is used to simply get people into the theatres.
If Four Lions is anything it is multi-layered. People wanting just simply to laugh at a bunch of certifiable morons doing stupid things will have plenty to take from it, but people who crave subtext and depth in their films will find it rich with pathos. Four Lions is one of the best British comedies to come about in years and should be viewed by anyone with a sense of humour.
Four Lions will be showing at LU Cinema on Monday, October 11 at 7:30pm.