It was never going to be an easy ride. For the past two decades, Chris Morris has taken the rocky path at almost every opportunity – perhaps never more so than with the infamous Brass Eye special. Never one to deliberately court controversy (he says he finds it boring), Morris nevertheless refuses to take his audience for granted, yet also steadfastly refuses to pander to them either. One only has to look at his last major project in the writers/directors chair, Nathan Barley to see that.
But few could have predicted that the man who made Dr Fox claim paedophiles were genetic cousins of crabs would be bold enough to tackle the subject of Islamic fundamentalism. Given the furore over Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed, a film which appeared to poke fun at the concept of martyrdom appeared to be asking for trouble – and for such a private family man, also a potentially deadly threat from those who felt wronged by his “art”.
They needn’t have worried, however. Whilst some may cast off Morris as a shock-merchant, their ignorance would surely be tested watching Four Lions, in which Omar, Waj, Faisal, Barry and Hassan – five English muslims in the heart of the North of England – plot to become suicide bombers to wage war against the West. Whilst the men are portrayed, on the whole, as blundering buffoons, the religion itself and, remarkably, the concepts on show, are dealt with respectfully. They may plan to attach bombs to crows, cook their SIM cards to prevent the authorities finding them, and wobble their faces from side to side to blur security camera images (or even in the case of Faisal, wear a cardboard box on his head whenever he is filmed!), but oddly, the film is on their side.
That’s not to say that Four Lions is an indictment of the West, despite previous projects from Chris Morris notoriously ridiculing aspects of our society. It presents the human side to these people, especially our ‘hero’ Omar. He’s a family man, with a loving wife and a young son: both of whom having accepted his mission to martyrdom as his duty, and loving him all the more for it – yet totally avoiding the stereotypes that the film could have so easily fallen back on. They laugh, they joke, they have water pistol fights and talk about The Lion King – they are, quite simply, normal people with an extraordinary role to play in life with a fundamental belief system that doesn’t agree with our own.
And this, perhaps, is where Four Lions succeeds where it could have failed. Yes, its hilarious from start to finish. Yes, it’ll make you look at Toploader in a whole new light, and you’ll never be able to see a Ninja Turtle in quite the same way again. Yes, it even has glorious cameo appearances from Julia Davis, Kevin Eldon, Benedict Cumberbatch and Darren Boyd. But what really rises this film above your average comedy is despite their goals, you genuinely like the characters so much, that when the inevitable has to happen (and really, there was no logical way around it that wouldn’t spoil the film and insult a belief group in one fell swoop), the results are much like the film as a whole – simultaneously funny, shocking, bitter-sweet and surprisingly moving.
Sometimes films like this, especially comedies, have a finite lifespan. They may have a topical subject matter, or be seeped in popular culture of the period, so five years down the line much of what is being referred to feels like an age ago. The true greats, it seems, are mostly timeless classics – they may be deliberately set long ago, or just feel as if they’re of no particular time, with only fashion sense and a few wobbly soundtrack choices belying their age.
And Four Lions subject matter couldn’t be more topical if it tried. Yet because its themes are universal, and because its overriding messages will live on long after you and I are dead and buried, there’s every chance this film will last a long, long time indeed. And it would utterly deserve that honour.
Watching it back on dvd several months after repeated cinema viewings, it genuinely holds up. It still manages to make you curl up into a ball and laugh until you can no longer breathe. If anything, the dvd release will just help the film on its way towards becoming an inevitable quotation classic with students and the ‘alt-cool’ crowds for decades – a Withnail And I for the ‘Teenies’ generation.
Not only that, but it may also mean that those who couldn’t get to see it in the cinema can finally watch it in the comfort of their own home and find out what all the fuss is about – and I strongly urge all our international readers to do import the dvd and do exactly that, regardless of their previous enjoyment (or not) of Chris Morris’ previous work. This is a new and powerful beast, and if the forthcoming Boosh movie is even 1/10th as good as this, it’ll be an indisputable instant classic. Truly, Four Lions is THAT good: it’s the rubber dingy rapids of theatrical comedies, innit?
This being a Chris Morris dvd, no expense has been spared making it look and feel different to your usual digital versatile experience. With the glossy book packaging [sadly not available in supermarket editions of the dvd] echoing that of Nathan Barley, you may be pleased to know that whilst Morris’ penchant for confusing dvd menus may have been slightly stifled by Optimum, they’re still far from the norm – with the main menu featuring Barry leading the boys on a hillside training excursion in the middle distance, with only their muted cries and a strong wind providing audio accompaniment.
This approach continues onto the other menus, with a stylish looking audio options screen [offering the choice of 5.1 surround or stereo] that takes a moment or two to really comprehend, and a truly hilarious extras menu we won’t spoil here housing deleted scenes and background material – which again descend into even more ridiculous menus – a highlight of which appears to be some sort of Jihadic prayer music video. Great stuff, and it all adds to the experience.
Perhaps in an effort to counter the understandably negative press that the film was bound to encounter, the dvd also contains a short film by associate producer Afi Khan, which, in the words of the filmmakers: ‘typifies many conversations we had [in strict confidence] with Muslim lads in cities across Britain, about their social lives and relationships with gora/goree (white boys/girls).’ Based in Nelson, Lancashire, its not meant to be humourous, and is all the better for it: the result is a fascinating insight into a world which remains segregated from mainstream ‘white’ society yet demonstrates still further that there is precious little difference between the two ethnic groups, especially in the current generation of young adults.
There’s also a genuine interview with Mohammad Ali Ahmed – a white Muslim convert who was awaiting trial for “preparing an act of terror” – an act for which he was later acquitted. Ahmed is very eager to showcase his admittedly well crafted art, through which he creates a channel to explain his religious views, before switching topics and speaking rather frankly about his arrest and subsequent questioning. Again, its fascinating background detail that demonstrates Morris & company did their homework, but it does appear to have been featured in place of something more substantial about the making of the picture.
Scratch the surface of the disc, however, and there are some hidden gems. A number of easter eggs are hidden on the disc via two additional hidden menus – including a brilliant out-take from Waz’s Jihad video. The majority of these are a series of short clips in which we get a sneak peek behind the scenes on filming several key moments in the film. We get to see the crew setting off explosives, Morris directing the cast, including in alternate and abandoned sequences, and Phonejacker/Facejacker star Kayvan Novak mucking about on set a lot – including a great impersonation of Chris Morris that almost warrants the dvd price tag alone.
Delving still further, there’s a short but sweet talking heads package in which the writers and the lead cast discuss the film, with particular attention on the bonding that occurred between the actors on set. There is, however, some repetition of the making of footage, which given the short running time and the brief snippets of the Q&A session which occured at the Bradford Film Festival [where the interviews were recorded], inevitably leaves you longing for more.
And this is where the dvd falls down. Alongside the hidden features listed above, and a handful of genuinely funny deleted scenes, but with no commentary explaining why they were deleted its left up to the individual viewer to make their mind up as to why they were omitted. And the brief making of footage we’ve seen not only looks fascinating, but highlights that all involved appeared to have a great time working on the film, so there are almost certainly some great anecdotes just dying to come out on camera in more in-depth interviews that are sadly absent here.
There are a few interesting titbits of info that we can glean from what we have, however. For example – the camera slates were given a false title, producer and director credit, presumably to prevent irate detractors of the film’s production from interfering, but also perhaps because Morris appears to thrive when he’s allowed to just get on with his work, undisturbed.
And perhaps that’s partially why we’re only allowed glimpses into the production? With a film this controversial, and a director who to many is a genuine auteur – albeit one who is reluctant to give interviews or insight into his life away from the work he creates – perhaps lacking any real insight from Morris truly allows his vision to remain undiluted by explanation, and he can concentrate on figuring out where his brilliant mind will take him (and us) next instead.
Perhaps one day the film will be given the super deluxe special edition treatment. Until then, with only a tiny smattering of extras it seems that Four Lions must stand on its own merits – and luckily, they’re strong enough to make this an essential purchase.