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Four Lions

Four Lions, off the back of glowing end-of-year re-appraisals and much involvement in ‘Top Ten’ lists of must-sees from the year that was 2010, is an oddity, and not a particularly good one. Have those extolling this as a film comparable to the likes of The Social Network actually watched it in its entirety?

Four Lions, then, is about a group of not-particularly-sharp suicide bombers that meet up to discuss the most impactful way that they can kill themselves. Various botch-ready ideas are given little shrift and two of our group head off for Taliban training in realistic desert locations. They are quickly sent home in disgrace and shift their focus, eventually (after a counter-intuitive move to smithereen a mosque is unsurprisingly vetoed by group leader Omar (a superb Riz Ahmed)) to the London Marathon.

A great idea that doesn’t quite work is the disappointing summary of what unfolds. Great performances are largely buried underneath wince-inducingly tepid knockabout laffs. To get this kind of film off the ground must’ve been hard – the BBC and Channel 4 wouldn’t touch it – but in any event the result seems fatally compromised and slight.

There are great scenes here that redeem a willingness to throw gentle, domestic comedy together with irreconcilably alien cross-cultural/religious normalcies. The scene where, in a cosily lit living room, father, mother and son chat endearingly about the father imminently killing himself. This kind of example treads a perfect line between aghast commentary and factual, non-exploitative or caricatured portrayal. Indeed, no real commentary is needed, nothing but the reality need be put on screen – that this subject matter is difficult to even subvert for laughs (surely it’s beyond normal comprehension anyway? Particularly to this atheist) becomes all too apparent.

The one joke here Morris is comfortable with regarding purely fictional intervention – that these happen to be bumblers, incompetent suicide bombers that aren’t worthy of being taken seriously – doesn’t stretch particularly far in any case. The dialogue just isn’t funny enough or engaging enough, dramatically or otherwise. The performances are largely turned up to 11 (and impressive) but the material just isn’t ridiculous enough, inventive enough or compelling enough for this to work as any kind of absurdist metaphor or to even properly work, period. These are unquestionably likable characters with a potentially horrific (to most audience members) death looming. (That their warped, slapstick demise is handled as it is seems the one truly Chris Morris element that’s present and correct.) Dialogue exchanges edge into uncomfortably pointless territory. There is too much emphasis on tedious, sub-BBC3-sitcom sequences that go nowhere.

The point at which the film really works, throughout the final 15 minutes or so, where Four Lions descends into glorious, breathless farce – ‘Catch the peanut!’ – arrives all too soon and yet rather too late to save it. Conclusion? This is a one-off 30-minute episode of Brass Eye padded out with exceedingly dull plot filler.

We expect more from Morris, particularly more edgy laughs. There just aren’t enough here and it’s a squandered exercise. Ronnie Corbett could seamlessly stroll on at any moment. Nothing inherently wrong with that (I guess) but a great, inflammatory idea is doused in comfortable, low-comedy and there seems to be a strange reluctance to take the difficult, rewarding route. Imagine what Python might’ve done with this? Unfortunately for Morris, that’s one of the yardsticks – and Life Of Brian was much more potent, decades ago.

From Wikipedia: ‘Morris has said that he does not find the film at all controversial and that attempting to cause controversy is “one of the most boring things you can do.”’ Fair enough, and while the idea is unavoidably ‘controversial’, what’s left needs to be edgy, or funny – nothing wrong with either, and both were seemingly at Morris’ whim before this. Surely they will be again despite this well-meant, too-gentle mis-step.

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