***originally written 11 May 2010***
Chris Morris should need no introduction… except that, to a lot of people, he actually does need an introduction. A fair number of people just a few years younger than I am have never heard of the man, and screw up their faces in confusion at the mention of a ‘brasseye’, and even more so at the mention of ‘jam’. It was only when this happened a couple of times I realised just how much Morris has removed himself from public view in recent years. A supporting part in The IT Crowd, a short film for Warp (who also backed Lions) and behind-camera work on the mainly-superb Nathan Barley. Since the rather-ironic media frenzy that descended on the 2001 Brasseye special, he has remained active, but keenly out of the firing range. Until now of course.
Though Morris doesn’t appear in Four Lions, the film has certainly brought his name back onto people’s lips. The man who courted controversy by satirising public panic over paedophilia has set his sights on the last decade’s biggest hot-potato – terrorism and religious extremism. Though nothing is sacred here.
The plot focuses on a fairly traditional line-up of five mates all out to make a plan come together. Only in Four Lions the plan is martyrdom. Morris largely keeps famous faces out of the picture; which either speaks to the man’s own judgement or to how predominantly caucasian popularised British comedy remains; though fans of his previous work will be delighted by cameos from Kevin Eldon and Julia Davis. Their skewed mission takes them from anonymous suburbs to middle-Eastern training camps to their shockingly-vulnerable eventual target; the London marathon.
And along the way there are laughs. Everywhere. Most of these are fueled by the inane bickering that takes place between the quintet, but Morris doesn’t rely on this solely, and there are some great moments of physical comedy. Imagine five grown men trying to ‘run slowly’… It is with this broader vein of comedy to tap into that Four Lions trumps last year’s In The Loop, which, though excellent, really was all-talk. Though Four Lions also has the added tension of explosives and ammunition. The so-called gun-on-the-wall. You’re never quite sure what might blow-up, or when.
If that makes it sound like some Benny Hill version of The Hurt Locker, then I’m doing the film a disservice. Though incredibly funny and endlessly quotable, Four Lions isn’t an out-and-out comedy. There are several moments of muted drama that work just as well as the belly-laughs but for different reasons. Lead-character Omar’s domestic life is admirably mundane, and as he talks plainly about killing himself with his wife in their sparsely furnished, nice home, Morris deftly sculpts a strange unease. In fact a cryptic, horribly-public exchange of words between them in a hospital toward the film’s final stretch remains one of the most oddly-touching scenes in recent memory. The film is stylistically balanced as well, with devices such as night-vision used sparingly, and featuring a recurring motif of slow zoom-ins, which enhance the sensation of paranoia prevailing in the protagonists. For the most part however Morris avoids letting the technical aspects impede on the action itself.
Morris doesn’t lecture either. I saw Four Lions in a group, and upon leaving we tried to pin down any particular message that the film may have had. It’s hard to say. That part of you sides with this warped bromance despite the murderous nature of it’s intent will make many feel uneasy. That Morris pulls no punches in the final scenes is admirable and in-keeping with the man’s track record. You may leave the movie feeling conflicted, but you’ll have laughed. And if you’re reading this and you’re not sure who the man is, it’s time to find out.
In a status update I asked whether this was the funniest British film since Withnail & I. It might not just be that. It might be the best British film since Withnail & I. Thoroughly recommended.