Friday, 5 November 2010

Wider Reading | Four Lions

I may have mentioned Traitor before, because it’s a film that’s stuck with me far longer than it deserves. Don Cheadle infiltrates a cell of Islamic terrorists, worldwide, presided over by a villainous, apparently secularly-minded businessman who, over the course of many years, has put into play sleeper suicide bombers, ordinary Muslim men and women in suburban houses who wait, patiently, for a chance to carry out an ingenious, efficiently executed attack country-wide in the USA. Body of Lies, a movie in which Leonardo di Caprio successfully convinces a group of Iraqis that he’s from Basra, has much the same interpretation of its brilliant and villainous antagonists.

James Bond will be powerless to prevent the destruction of that bus in Sheffield, my friend. Quite, quite powerless.

Four Lions, which I’ve finally got around to watching, has a cell of five muppets; enthusiastic, bumbling lads with a vague sense that all is not well in the world and little to no connection with the ‘real’ tribesmen fighting their war in the Middle East against America and the West. It has some similarities with the equally clumsy and inept revolutionary cell in Dostoyevsky’s The Devils, and a great many similarities with the Vienetta-loving, West Bromwich-supporting terrorists of Monkey Dust’s best sketch.

But all that Monkey Dust did – showing ‘home-grown terrorists’ up as naive, pop-culture-saturated boys with a misplaced desire to be old-fashioned heroes – Four Lions does with more finesse, and smarter analysis of its characters’ motivations. It puts forward an intriguing argument by giving its anti-hero Omar (played brilliantly by Riz Ahmed) a conservative Muslim brother who suspects the group’s intentions and fears them. It has sense to it; the strictly religious man obeys the rules, because he’s always obeyed the rules. But it’s the more secular lads who have that very acute modern, Western angry-young-man desire to get back at the people in charge and to rise above the ordinary. One of the group, Barry, a white convert, has all of the shouty, finger-jabbing self-righteousness of a BNP speaker; his anger’s simply been transferred to another cause. The cell doesn’t really have a grip on what it’s supposed to be attacking – Jews, sex, American imperialism, the Internet – but they want to make a statement...whatever that might be.

The characters are passionate idealists. They like the idea of being martyrs, of striking a blow for the cause, but the thought of actually killing another human being appals and frightens them. Dying in a blaze of glory, in an explosion, is exciting because it’s vague, but when one of them is called upon to murder his neighbour, who he invited over for a flirtatious boogie while his nails and bleach were still out on the living room table, the specificity of killing her is anathema to him. When Hassan (Arsher Ali) tries to think through the reality of suicide bombing, Omar tells him, with genuine passion,

“Don’t listen to your head, bro. Listen to your heart.”

The repeated use of ‘brother’ is even more telling. What binds the little group together is not religion or politics, but an equally vague sense of male camaraderie. When they sing, together, just before their attack, “Dancin’ In The Moonlight”, it’s funny, but the happy grins on their faces as they gaze at each other are what make the scene exceptional. They have found a shared, contented identity that just happens to be monstrous when considered with any rational thought.

It’s not a perfect film, mostly because of the tone, which a couple of times indulges Chris Morris’ love of extreme comedy, weakening the realistic character humour that makes up most of the humour; a scene where two of the boys in a Pakistani training camp shoot a missile launcher backwards into a nearby terrorist hideout is bloody stupid, and completely out of place. But the leads’ performances are completely fantastic; they’re funny and poignant and, best of all, they ring true.

That’s the kicker, I think. I have no idea as to whether Four Lions’ bombers are closer to the truth than Traitor’s. Actually, at this point, when fiction needs to deal with the reality of 9/11 and 7/7 and – shall we call it – the perception of radical Islam, the majority of it has either been making terrorists the new Hollywood thriller baddies, and nearly as many white authors have tried to ‘explain’ them with earnest screed (Sebastian Faulkes, John Updike). For this second purpose, comedy is far better suited than anything else, because at its best it’s humanising like nothing else.

Four Lions doesn’t patronise its anti-heroes. It just ‘gets’ them. It's the perfect antidote to the worryingly popular narrative of an ingenious and destructive Islamic conspiracy going all the way to, say, the White House - a Protocols of Mecca, if you will. And it does so without having to resort to the kind of worthiness that can be dismissed by detractors as white guilt.

Seek out the DVD.


  1. I also really ought to mention that the film features Silkwormks favourite Benedict Cumberbatch in a small but memorable role as a hostage negotiator.

  2. Actually, it's been pointed out to me that Four Lions also bears a strong resemblance to the Boris Johnson-penned suicide-bomber farce Seventy-Two Virgins. What a strange world we live in...

  3. It's really worth watching the DVD extras - two short films about how they researched the film. But oh man it is a work of geninus.

  4. Morris and the cast did a live discussion session hosted by Charlie Brooker after some showings of the film. Chris said an early inspiration was Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent, which i really should have thought about before he mentioned it considering it's one of my faourite novels and i drove past the park in which its pivotal moment is set on my way to the picturehouse. Convoluted reasons leading to the accidental exploding of a simpleton is a wonderful tragic theme.