Firstly, apologies for the hiatus. New work commitments sucked up a lot of my time and ability to watch and write about films. That, and I was subconsciously avoiding actually having to sit through ‘Avatar’, our next installment in our series…
Anyway, so far in this series we have considered the concept of ‘Oscar bait’ with films like ‘Lincoln’ and (winner of this year’s best picture at the Oscars) ‘Birdman’, as well as beginning to consider some of the big issues of our time and how they’ve been portrayed in film, including gender through the misogynist mindfuck ‘Gone Girl‘ and sexuality through the sexy but slightly unrealistic ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour‘. But with our net piece in the series we continue what we started with ‘A Separation‘ and consider one of the biggest issues of this new millenium, religious fundamentalism and its ugly sister, terrorism with that tiny yet hugely controversial genre, the terrorism comedy.
It seems amazing that Chris Morris’ film ‘Four Lions’ is only five years old. In a post-Hebdo world, a farce based around the failed exploits of a group of inept Islamic terrorists seems like an act of suicidal chutzpah. Mind you, its director Chris Morris is nothing if not king of suicidal chutzpah. Auteur of comedies such as ‘The Day Today’ and ‘Brass Eye’, ‘Four Lions’ was seen as a partial return from the comedian who had all but vanished from screens after the extreme scandal that followed Brass Eye’s paedophilia special. Again, that phrase could only be said of Mr. Suicidal Chutzpah, Esq.
If ‘Four Lions’ is any evidence, this disappearance was definitely not due to loss of nerve as might be suggested by his tame turn on ‘The IT Crowd’ might have suggested. ‘Four Lions’ is a film that takes the dark spectre of our time and pull its trousers down, revealing a pair of novelty love heart boxers as favoured by those who got pantsed in teen movies in the ’80s.
Based around the exploits of four radicalised extremists in Britain, the satire is often so close to the bone that it basically amputates it. For example, a typical running joke sees Barry (Nigel Lindsay, who pleasingly followed this role by playing the eponymous ogre in the West End musical version of ‘Shrek’) planning for his Islamic sect to bomb a mosque, seeing this as the best way to radicalise ordinary, every day muslims. What takes this from UKIP paranoia to ‘Strangelove’-style satire is Morris’ intelligence here, and his constant reaffirming that these terrorists are a fringe group completely moved from a) reality and b) the rest of their faith as a whole. Even in his dark, farcical view of the world, important truths stand stronger than they do in the news reports and newspaper columnists that love to muddy the line between faith and extremism.
The word ‘farcical’ is also key here. ‘Four Lions’ gets away with a lot of what it gets away with because at heart it is a very silly ’70s farce wrapped in modern political situations. From our band of terrorists accidentally blowing up their own jihadist camp to one of the group trying to turn a crow into an IED, a good alternative title for ‘Four Lions’ would be ‘Some Jihadists Do ‘Ave ‘Em’. The exploits are pitched between satirical realism that, as is typical in Morris’ work, turn suddenly in ridiculous directions.
Despite all this clever tightrope-walking, could this film get made today? It is difficult to say. The ‘Je Suis Charlie’ movement shows there is clearly an appetite for the protection of free speech, especially if that free speech is wrapped in a humorous package, but also the risks to personnel feel too great for any major production company to consider making such a film. Which perhaps as just as well; without the guiding hand of Morris, this film could spin off into nasty directions very quickly. Also, its central premise of the terrorists hijacking a marathon has taken on a hideous prescience since the events of the Boston Marathon in 2013.
As ‘Gone Girl’ showed us with gender, clumsy or lazy attempts at satire can just come off as offensive, and if this was a problem in that film imagine how terrifyingly inept a film about failed terrorists could be. So watch ‘Four Lions’, because it is an often funny, regularly smart attempt at something few would be able to achieve. Plus, it features a fun early cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch, playing a shtick as a police negotiator that twisted into a dramatic part led the actor to an Oscar nomination half a decade later.
Also, watch it safe in the knowledge that you are unlikely ever to see another film like it. The closest is probably ‘Team America’, and even that is about as far from this film as the start line of the London Marathon the terrorists attempt to bomb is from the finish line. A film that is definitely of its year, and that we will never see replicated again.
Next: continuing our look at Islam in film, we look at the highest-grossing film of all time and ask our selves one simple question: how the hell is this piece of shit so damn popular?! Until we look at 2009’s ‘Avatar’, then, catch up with the series so far by clicking here >>