Tuesday 4 May 2010

"Four Lions": a squib

Arriving in UK cinemas mere weeks after the similarly Islamo-themed, similarly middling The Infidel, the curiously anticlimactic Four Lions offers further evidence that, faced with the wearying whys and wherefores of the British film industry, our sharpest comic minds feel obliged to defang themselves to get their projects into production. Even the famously uncompromising Chris Morris, even when backed by the envelope-pushing folk at Warp Films, appears to have reined himself in and toned himself down for this timid comedy about amateur suicide bombers: a small-screen response to a major global issue, it sometimes seems less concerned about potential fatwas than it does about recouping its producers' investment, or whether anybody is likely to turn out to see it.

The set-up, certainly, is promising: a contingent of young males attempt to wage holy war from a grimy flat above a dry cleaners in Sheffield. In ascending order of idiocy, these are: Omar (Riz Ahmed), a family man who does at least appear to have read the Koran at some stage, yet whose first recourse in any given situation is to pick a fight with whoever's around; his brother Waj (Kayvan Novak), the kind of dipstick who signs up for a cause just so he can arse around with replica firearms; Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), whose idea of a disguise, when buying peroxide in bulk, is to adopt the bearing and accent of an IRA man; and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), the cell's extremist white handler, who once tried to establish the Islamic Republic of Tinsley, and who plans to undermine Western civilisation by bombing a mosque. (As he phrases it, with typical twisted logic, "You cannot win an argument simply by being right.")

The characters' essential stupidity thus swiftly established, we soon come to gather that a 102-minute feature cannot be sustained on stupidity alone. The Morris project Four Lions most closely resembles is the maligned sitcom Nathan Barley, with bearded zealots in the place of ironically coiffed new-media twats, and no Dan Ashcroft on hand to provide a more moderate or varied line of buffoonery. It would come as no surprise if Four Lions fell foul of the same classification problem that befell those viewers who went into Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's Cemetery Junction expecting a laugh-out-loud comedy. In the final draft of this script, there exist traces of a serious, severe drama tackling the corruption of true faith by popular culture, but it's a fine line between dramatising or satirising this process, and merely pandering to your media-savvy target audience. (Nathan Barley would love Four Lions.)

Omar recounts his and Waj's (mis)adventures at training camp - during which they wipe out their own instructors - as a bedtime story co-opting the plot of The Lion King; when Waj finally gets his hands on some explosives, his instinct is to film himself performing Jackassy pranks with trace amounts; even when surrounded by the police (conferred with the television-derived nickname "Dibble"), the latter's primary concern is which phone network an aspirant terrorist should be on. The four lions, we quickly grasp, are more motivated by images (and images of fundamentalists, hence the bandying-around of the derogatory slang "TV Paki"; they're following in the smoking footsteps of shoe bomber Richard Reid) than any 'pure' notion of jihad, which explains the proliferation of cameras and videophones kept about their persons.

Verite camerawork - extreme zooms, night-vision photography, surveillance imagery - constitutes Morris's one formal concession to the new medium. It's the screenplay - written by the director with Peep Show's Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain - that underwhelms, lacking much in the way of character development, narrative urgency or (most disappointingly) the linguistic fireworks we've come to expect from Morris: the lads' insults ("twazzock", "flippin' bastards") could come from any pootling Britcom. The film is careful not to tar an entire religion with the same extremist brush, and yet too careful: as though Morris had spent all his energies on research, and had nothing left when it came to writing good, honest, funny gags. (Omar and co. are nowhere near as amusing as the DIY jihadists of the animated BBC3 series Monkey Dust, who found themselves unable to complete their holy mission when their planned bombing campaign clashed with the Stars in their Eyes final.)

What recognisable comedy there is in Four Lions is broad, dashed-off slapstick: when the bombs go off, you half-expect characters to re-emerge Wile E. Coyote-style, with their faces blackened and their hair sticking up on end. As they are, these bloodless (and, narratively, barely noted) bombings offer nothing of the insinuating horror Morris generated in Jam; elsewhere, using Toploader's "Dancing in the Moonlight" as a signifier of dickheadedness has surely been done to death now (Morris uses it twice, just in case we didn't get it first time round) ; and as for the finale, which requires the cast to don fancy dress, and marks the non-awaited revival of Bernie Clifton's ostrich outfit for laughs, you're left wondering: is this the Chris Morris we're witnessing at work here?

Compare Four Lions to the work of another arch provocateur tackling religious extremism head-on - Bruno Dumont's forthcoming drama Hadewijch, which really does leave you shaken, and wondering which direction society is heading in - and Morris's satirical vision here comes to seem unexpectedly reassuring: would that all suicide bombers were this bumbling and ineffectual. Maybe it's Warp's usual, slapdash way with these kinds of lowish-budget experiments, maybe it's the involvement of former C4 head of comedy Iain Morris (no relation) as a script consultant, but Four Lions looks more than anything else like the sort of patchy sitcom pilot that might have passed into oblivion from Channel 4's Comedy Lab strand, under a milder, apter title - Silly Bombers, maybe, or perhaps just Jihad's Army.

Four Lions opens nationwide on Friday.

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