It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Chris Morris has played a major role in defining British satire since the 1990s. From his early days in radio co-writing and presenting On The Hour, a spoof news show which morphed into The Day Today for television penned by Morris, Steve Coogan and Armando Ianucci (In The Loop), to Brass Eye, the award-winning satirical swipe at current affairs programming and media hysteria, Morris has frequently courted controversy from the very media he so effectively lambasts: the one-off special episode of Brass Eye on paedophilia – slamming the tabloids for their exploitative fearmongering over child abuse – was met with arrogant and hypocritical moral outrage by the mainstream press and politicians (Labour’s Beverley Hughes called the programme “unspeakably sick”, then later admitted she hadn’t seen it). Morris’ series Jam, by contrast, was in some ways so surreal that the darkness of the humour was lost on many. Described by some as a “postmodern comedy” it consisted of abstract shot sketches on paranoia, the death of a child, malpracticing doctors and an assortment of other oddballs and psychopaths, but on the whole too “out there” for it to receive the same level of attention and controversy as Brass Eye.
None of which is much preparation for Four Lions, a broad farce about a group of aspiring Jihadists from Yorkshire attempting to plot an attack on the decadent West. Morris seems to have dropped the sharp and insightful satirical edge that characterised his TV work and gone for a more conventional comedy, one in which the stupidity of the central characters drives the laughs, as they get themselves into all manner of improbable scrapes on account of their staggering ineptitude. Shot mostly in documentary-style handheld camerawork, reminiscent of Ianucci’s In The Loop, Four Lions’ swift pace takes us from the UK to a Pakistani training camp and back, as terror cell “leader” Omar (played by Riz Ahmed) attempts to whip his Jihadi associates into shape for a spectacular suicide bombing. What follows is a series of set pieces, replete with gags which the cast deliver with a clear knack for comic timing, in which the banter between the main characters and the focus on group dynamics – something Morris has stated in interviews became a key theme of the film – supercedes the political and religious motivations behind their extremism.
Anyone expecting a scathing satire in the vein of Morris’s television work is likely to be disappointed by Four Lions’ almost Ealingesque screwball approach; a comedy of errors with plenty of slapstick and crossed wires (pun intended) building to a frenetic climax that feels like a warped variation on the bungled heist movie. As a commentary on the motivations behind Jihad or the manipulation of Islam in order to justify violent extremism, or even as a broader swipe at the absurdity of the “War on Terror” and the media hypocrisy behind the fearmongering and propaganda, Four Lions doesn’t deliver. And nor does it pretend to – as a consequence of tackling such a controversial subject in a comedy format and getting the end product to a wide audience, this more conventional approach for Morris’s first feature film was perhaps as inevitable as comparisons with his earlier work. And ultimately, such comparisons are unfair – the film never pretends to be more than the farcical comedy that it is, and on this level is almost entirely successful. Some of the puns are cheap but there’s plenty of wit, and it’s all shot through with an infectious sense of fun. This is perhaps the most notable achievement of Four Lions: its ability to take the issue of violent extremism and suicide bombing and turn it into something that is frequently laugh out loud and entertaining. Regardless of the expectations of the fans, that takes some doing, and Morris pulls it off with predictable confidence.