Jihad for dummies

Chris Morris made his name with abrasive satire, so it’s a surprise his terrorist-mocking debut feat

There is no shortage of poison coursing through the work of Chris Morris, but at heart his comedy represents the struggle of common sense against hysteria. It also depends for much of its success on twisted gags played straight: from his earliest broadcasts in the late 1980s, when Morris might be heard announcing the start of Caress-a-Cyclist Week, or requesting information concerning the whereabouts of a cup of tea lost in the Streatham area, his brisk newsreader harrumph could smuggle poppycock safely into the cold light of daytime radio.

With its potential for ambushing the audience with unflagged surrealism, radio was the ideal medium for Morris; I cherish the memory of catching On the Hour for the first time in 1991 and momentarily believing it to be a genuine news programme. I like to think it didn't take me long to clock the bogus headlines ("Glass-faced man too disgusting for trial", "Dismantled pope found sliding along road"). Or, if it did, that this proves Morris's skill as a bamboozler, rather than my own gullibility. Morris doesn't appear in Four Lions, his debut film as director (he also co-wrote the script, with Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain). But he does find an equivalent to his persuasive vocal tones in Lol Crawley's hand-held camerawork, with its inbuilt promise of honesty and authenticity.

That visual style is offset by the film's clownish characters - a quartet of British Muslims with delusions of jihad. The question, after two of them confuse the opposite ends of a grenade launcher at a terrorist training camp in Pakistan, is whether they will get round to blowing themselves up before they simply blow it.

In preparation for the film, Morris conducted hundreds of interviews and attended the trials of alleged terrorists. (He also heckled Martin Amis at a debate on Islam at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, though this may qualify more as recreation than work.) Morris claims to have been struck by al-Qaeda's high mishap rate, so we can assume that the Keystone Kops view of terrorism on display here has some basis in fact.

The film's makeshift mujahedin occupy a sliding scale of ineptness. Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) is so deluded that he believes he can disguise himself as a woman by covering his beard. Waj (Kayvan Novak) is a child-man who can only process life experiences by likening them to computer games or theme-park rides. He looks to Omar (Riz Ahmed), the sanest member, for guidance. Omar is the only one of the group with a family; he has a young son, whose introduction on screen provides one of the film's most discreetly shocking moments.

Another comes from Omar's wife, Sophia (Preeya Kalidas), a nurse who endorses her husband's suicidal ambitions. Sophia's longing for the carnage that Omar will create is unpalatable enough. Juxtaposed with the care-giving connotations of her NHS uniform, her yearning becomes impossible to rationalise or laugh off.

Omar displays a relish for language that is typical of Morris's writing. He slips into rat-tat-tat rants lambasting obscure reference points (Gordon Ramsay and Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range get a mention) and rejects his strait-laced brother's attempts to preach to him - to "do a wisdom shit on my head". He is alone in recognising the idiocy of his peers, but isn't immune to it; he lacks the self-awareness to see the dippy side of conversing with fellow jihadists via puffin avatars on a pre-school website. (The gag is a shade too close to the scene from In the Loop, which Bain and Armstrong also co-wrote, in which military casualties are totted up on a talking calculator.) The poignancy of the film arises from the gap between Omar's realisation that his bloodlust may be misguided and his inability to stem it.

The hexagonal peg in the group - square doesn't begin to describe his eccentricity factor - is Barry (Nigel Lindsay). As a white, middle-aged, latently homosexual convert to Islam, Barry occupies a niche beyond the dominion of the most accommodating personals ad or specialist publisher. His intellectual levels rise and fall unpredictably. He has the wherewithal to insinuate himself into a panel discussion on Islamophobia, but not to realise that the FBI can still trace your Sim card once you've swallowed it.

It is bizarre that Barry is responsible for the only deliberate acts of violence in the film - first when he expresses his commitment in front of a new recruit by driving a car very, very slowly into a low wall, and later when he punches himself in the face to win an argument. The absence of any back story to explain Barry is frustrating, but the film is good at ­making its characters fit comic types that any sitcom-watcher will find comforting. What a pity, you think, that Omar's cell never got to meet the sitting-room revolutionaries of ­Citizen Smith.

Abrasiveness and controversy are so closely associated with Morris's work that the quaint lilt of Four Lions is its most subversive aspect. Despite the supposedly groundbreaking subject matter, the camera finds tradition wherever it turns. Just as Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's Hot Fuzz exploited comic incongruity by bringing action-movie conventions to a rural town of summer fetes and am-dram, so Four Lions lends to terrorism a hint of Ealing, a dash of Monty Python. There's something very Ladykillers about scenes in which the bombers bicker among themselves in their glum neighbourhood hideout. When the gang members are learning how to jog "smoothly" to avoid jostling the explosives in their care, they could pass for employees of the Ministry of Silly Walks. The non-human casualties recall the cosy, mock-savage affronts to canine and marine life in A Fish Called Wanda.

All of this substantiates the film's insistence that terrorists are prone to the same pettiness and parochialism as anyone else. The argument is mounted not as an apologia for terrorism, but as a means of de-fanging and demystifying it. Most compassionate thinkers have no trouble refraining from the use of tabloid vernacular such as "evil" or "monster" in relation to terrorists, but there is another temptation, less easily avoided, to regard these avengers as supremely efficient machines - Quran-toting Terminators who will proceed unimpeded on their missions unless halted by a bullet. Four Lions challenges this misconception by showing that murderous plots are just as likely to be thwarted by the terrorists' own incompetence as they are by any efforts from MI5.

The script could have been a shade clearer on the involvement of the security services. Morris puts an original spin on the "establishing shot", that televisual staple which shows a building's exterior before the action moves inside: this is reinvented here as a snooping, CCTV-like zoom on to the outside of the location in question. Despite the use of green night-vision, and freeze-frames that simulate the act of an unseen agent photographing Fessal, it is distractingly unclear whether Omar's cell is being monitored. But the authorities in the film have as pitiful a success rate as Omar's
ragtag platoon.

Whatever the security services do - hostage negotiation, bringing down a target, executing a raid - goes hopelessly awry. The volatile recipe of righteousness, paranoia and deadly weapons, on both sides of the law, makes it a miracle that anyone involved ever hits the respective bullseye.

“Four Lions" is released on 7 May.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He blogs on film every Tuesday at Cultural Capital.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger