Lobby Talk: Four Lions


It’s called the “bunch of guys theory,” and it’s what we show in “Four Lions.”  The dynamics of a small group of blokes who are forming a rather intense plan.  Wherever it is, you will find funny stories, including about intelligence operations and how screwy they can get.  It’s all there, so you might as well deal with it.

(Four Lions: Chris Morris’ Jiha-Ha-Had Movie, from Boing Boing net)

I think, as men, we’ve all felt the call of the Bunch of Guys Theory.  Even if it’s just trying to play something like Halo or Left 4 Dead with your mates.  You cannot turn off the switch in our heads that makes us want to show off and take some sort of lead.  Call it some atavistic throwback to hairy man being a pack hunter, or the usual alpha male bullshit.  Hell, there can be pissing contests just to see who can try and be the biggest team player, never mind the who’s-in-charge arguments, or the who-can-save-the-day moments.

Can’t help but wonder if it’s part of that throwback that causes men to be drawn to that big-bollocks action movie gobshite, or if saturation in that kind of stuff is what further drives us to feel that way.  Either way, I’m a bit of a fucking sucker for it.  Hate to admit it, but it’s true.

Honor is now a dirty word.

A man must have a code.

It was worse in my teenage years.  Everything had to have this dynamic, like a sitcom or a action movie.  Everyone had a role to play.  I still feel yearnings for it.  Everything has to work out to a Hollywood finish, with everyone playing their part.  But, this is not the place to discuss my need for Conan-esque glory and the role of the modern video game in working that off (thank you, BioWare!).  All that really needs to be pointed to here is the instinct, oft preyed on by Hollywood, to be the star of your own personal movie epic, where you are the big hero and one crowning moment of awesome washes away all the sins of a life spent being mundane.

Of what it is to be manly!

Pretty good with a bo staff.

David: This probably runs parallel to the “gear queer” psychology that William Gibson riffed on in Zero History – the way that non military men fetishise military paraphernalia, wrapping themselves in imitation outfits in the hope that doing so will make them Real Men, maybe even heroes.

The characters in Four Lions don’t go too heavy on gear queer trappings, but when they’re in that training camp, and the first drone buzzes into view… well, let’s just say that Omar’s cack-handed attempts to sound like he knows what he’s talking about (“What is that, about 2,000 feet?”) are definitely examples of the same sort of delusional thinking.

Scott: Seriously, though. That bit is exactly like me trying to help my older brother do anything around the house.

With that in mind, it’s not hard to feel sorry for this bunch of muppets.  Oh, God, wait, no, we can’t! We can’t allow ourselves to think of these people as human!  They must be demonised and held up as hysterical examples of how this sub-culture of mentalists are the vanguard of a seemingly alien menace who live on this planet and don’t share our values!

Patience, Lewis. We're only human.

Kidding aside, it’s not that “people like this” haven’t committed horrors, it’s just that you don’t have to go far to find “people like this” anywhere, under any banner.  The very worst thing you can say about this movie is that it can make you sympathetic enough to these guys to almost cheer them on to some kind of half-assed victory.

David: Yeah, what I love about Four Lions is that it uses the stupid, boyishness of the main characters  to undo a lot of the Othering that surrounds jihadi terrorists.   The idiotic impulses you’ve been discussing might not be universally male, but they’re definitely not limited to any one ethnic or religious background.

Turns out it's hard to find this image without also finding a lot of rabid hate speech! There are one or two eye-gougers on the discussion thread I nicked this image from, but it's relatively sedate stuff, believe me.

When I first saw this issue of the Daily Star in the newsagent beside my work, I misread the headline as MUSLIM THUGS BURN PUPPIES! Of course I laughed – wouldn’t you?  Especially if you had the line “DOGS CONTRADICT ISLAM” fresh on your mind, courtesy of Four Lions.  The worrying thing is, I could actually see that being a headline in any number of British tabloids.  The relentless demonization of THOSE MUSLIMS in the British press is pretty stomach churning, to the extent that you almost feel like giving Four Lions marks for treating its main characters as human beings. Thankfully, Chris Morris’ debut movie doesn’t act like it deserves props for such basic functionality.  It doesn’t feel like it’s interested in easy point scoring or fitting into any traditional model of satire either – instead, it seems more concerned with being an actual movie, one that both mocks the all-too-common conflation of muslims and terrorists and manages to get into the psychology of an actual terrorist cell at the same time.  Thank fuck for that!

Not that you’d be able to tell it’s anything but a total piss take from the trailer:

When we saw Four Lions for the first time we were both moderately underwhelmed, probably because it’s not as relentlessly funny as either Morris’ TV work or In The Loop, which is its closest relative in terms of recent British movies.  Sure, there are lots of killer lines, some of them brilliantly tossed off (“FUCK MINI BABY BELLS!”), some of them amusingly worked through (“There’s a knife and fork, go make a fucking meal out of it!”). There are one or two moments of slapstick that are so broad as to be sublime too, but the overwhelming tone of the film is one of bewildered melancholy.

Compared to the constant stream of cock-slapping invective that characterises your average Malcolm Tucker diatribe, or the overloaded absurdity of Brass Eye‘s title sequence, Four Lions might seem a little muted. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that it’s a cowardly movie, because it’s not.  Chris Morris just has a good idea of what tools to use for the job at hand, and so instead of rehashing Peadogeddon he establishes a detached tone that allows the dynamics of his little group of would-be-suicide bombers to play out.

For all that we’ve both stressed the universalising aspects of the movie, I think it’s important to note that the main characters have in no way been reduced to a bunch of generic everymen, free of  personal or cultural baggage.  Whenever you see interviews with Morris or any of the cast of crew involved in the movie, one word keeps popping up: research.  This pays off in the movie, which is rich with arguments both goofy and heartfelt about the situations this most inept of terrorist cells finds itself in.  It might seem to mock its characters as they claim that buying Jaffa Cakes is the same as buying bombs for Israel, but it does so unobtrusively, in a way that matches the more low-key moments in shows like Peep Show and The Thick of It, both of which share writers with this movie. The characters are mostly young British muslims, but they’re also young British men, even the ones who are terrorists, and Four Lions is mindful of this at all times.

So while you have to laugh as Omar tries to justify himself to his son by adapting the story of The Lion King, you’re not going “crazy muslims, lol!”, you’re laughing in much the same way you would if you were watching one of the Peep Show boys trying to excuse their own antics.

Indeed, if anything the movie saves its most out-and-out disrespectful comedy for the people who’re trying to fight The War Against Terror (TWAT) on the home front:

Quietly fearless as it might be, Four Lions isn’t a movie that’ll tell you anything terribly new about the world. It’s about how stupid people will do stupid things for stupid reasons, and surely we all know that by now?   Still, when you get to the finale and Omar starts to struggle with the decisions he’s made… well, there’s genuine pathos there, of the kind that’s hard to resist.  Given that you’re watching a suicide bomber worry about whether he’s just tricked his friend into blowing himself up, that’s quite an achievement, right?


About scottmcallister

Glaswegian maker of something resembling comics.
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