n Thursday 7 July 2005, I opted to take a duvet day from my Central London-based office job. My downstairs neighbour was not so lucky. She was caught in an explosion caused by a suicide bomber at Kings Cross Underground Station. My neighbour sustained horrific injuries. Nevertheless, through considerable strength of character and no small amount of surgery, she re-built her life. Whatever she thinks about that day, I am not sure she would agree that people blowing themselves up to cause maximum collateral damage is funny.
Nevertheless, TV satirist Chris Morris, best known for The Day Today and Brass Eye , has chosen to make his feature film debut with a 'knockabout' comedy about British-Asian suicide bombers. Four Lions follows an incompetent would-be terrorist cell from the North (the film was shot in Sheffield) as they plot an atrocity. The press notes focus on Morris and his collaborators' attempts not to offend the Muslim community. There is no acknowledgement of the sensibilities of victims of suicide bombers and their families.
I would defend the right of any satirist to make fun of any subject. Wherever there is the veneer of certainty in an opinion, there is humour. However, in a film it is easier to make fun of what people say - and especially how they say it - than what people do. Actions can be beyond humour. I have yet to hear an audience laugh during an intentionally comic rape scene in a movie. They certainly did not do so during last year's Seth Rogen vehicle, Observe and Report , which featured such a scene between Rogen and Anna Faris. The visual spectacle of the act, even if enacted comically, is a reminder of the horror of its real equivalent; the viewer's sensibilities get in the way.
So when we watch five bungling would-be radical terrorists plot their act of anti- Western, anti-Capitalist violence, we know that, when the time comes, someone, somewhere who is not a worthy subject of satire, much less movie audience dislike, will be hurt. We can smile at the ineptitude of the bombers but not succumb to a full-on belly laugh. Is this the pinnacle of ambition of a movie comedy?
From its opening scene, Four Lions , struggles to make the audience laugh. We first see the group recording their martyrdom video. One of them poses with a toy rifle and is told by his leader, Omar (Riz Ahmed) that it looks fake. The strange thing is that, as we look through the viewfinder at the video within the film, the rifle does not look so unconvincing. The gang member attempts to address the supposed visual inadequacy of the prop by moving closer to the camera, so when he delivers his message, his face is obscured. You don't laugh, rather appreciate the gang member's camera awareness.
Omar is not so much a leader, rather than the captain of a Sunday morning five-a-side football team, missing a midfield and a goalie. He is also a family man. The film's main shocking conceit is that his young wife accepts that he is going to blow himself up. His young son, who listens to his re-telling of the Lion King complete with Jihadist hero, does so too. Faith in being reunited in the next life is absolute. There is a touching scene in a hospital before he sets off on his mission, when he announces that he'll 'see her on the top floor' at the end of her shift. He appears to be the film's most socially well-adjusted character, though he dislikes the piety of his brother, who won't enter a room when a woman is present, and is dedicated for reasons never explained in his path towards violence.
Omar's main competitor for the captain's armband is Muslim 'convert' Barry (Nigel Lindsay) known professionally as Azzlam Al Britaini. He advocates the bombing of a mosque in order to make the 'Muslim brothers rise up in outrage.' He is rightly denounced as an idiot. Much of the humour comes from the group's ineffectual methods. One member explains that he bought bottles of bleach from the same supplier in person disguising not his appearance but his speech; his three voices all sound the same. A crow is trained to deliver a bomb but simply explodes on the spot. Another member invites a neighbour, Alice (Julia Davis) into the flat where the explosive equipment is kept. Morris also satirises the ignorance of the English interacting with the group. Alice appears to have learning difficulties and concludes that the men are all homosexuals and are excluding her to 'do gay stuff' even though there is no visual evidence to support this. Omar's colleague, Matt (Craig Parkinson) accepts that he is heading off for an 'emergency family wedding' in Pakistan for two weeks. Snipers debate whether either a Wookie or the Honey Monster is a bear. A hostage negotiator (Benedict Cumberbatch) alienates one of the bombers by trying to appeal to his sexual preference. 'You're a bum man, then.' 'I'm not gay.' A man who tries to deliver the Heimlich manoeuvre on a bomber, who is choking on a Sim card, is blown up.
In the end making fun of suicide bombers is an exercise in diminishing returns. Morris is focussing on a particularly dysfunctional group whose absurd behaviour is contradicted by their competence in constructing destructive devices operated by mobile phones. Whether they are determined fanatics or 'berks' (Morris' word) does not diminish their threat to others. There is also a question as to whether Morris is the right man to make a film from the point of view of second generation 'proper Anglofied' Pakistan immigrants. I was reminded of white directors making worthy movies about Africa. It is also unfortunate that so few films are made about British Asians; you have either this or It's A Wonderful Afterlife . The film becomes representative in the way Morris did not expect.
Four Lions is at its best when it suggests warmth: Omar and his wife goad Omar's brother with their water pistols, the brother taking up a water gun to fight back. One character shows Omar his 'confused face' by text message. Morris would have made a better comedy if he had made us care more about the characters, and showed the characters caring more about each other.
Four Lions opens on May 7.