Catch a Fire (United Kingdom/South Africa/United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It would be easy to dismiss Catch a Fire as yet another story of a heroic rebel fighting against an oppressive regime. That would be an accurate high-level description of the story, but it neglects the intangibles: solid acting, effective direction, and a plot that makes occasional (albeit minor) diversions from the expected path. The film, which transpires in 1980 South Africa, when anti-Apartheid "terrorist acts" and demonstrations were in an upsurge, tells the real-life tale of freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso, who makes the transition from a "don't rock the boat" citizen to someone determined to bring down the government. One advantage enjoyed by Catch a Fire is that it's about a black native working to effect changes rather than a white outsider coming in to save the day (The Power of One).

Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) is a foreman at the Secunda oil refinery, one of the most important energy installations in all of South Africa. He's a by-the-book worker who stays out of trouble, avoids dissidents, and keeps a low profile. That doesn't prevent him from becoming a suspect when the refinery is sabotaged on a day when Patrick calls in sick. Security officer Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) picks him up on suspicion of being a terrorist. He is only released after enduring days of torture and seeing a friend killed. His wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna), is also brought in for questioning and she leaves with visible injuries. Once freed, Patrick becomes what Vos accused him of being: an anti-Apartheid freedom fighter. The next time he returns to the oil refinery, it will not be as a worker.

As with almost any movie that involves an insurgency and an repressive ruling force, it's easy to draw parallels between the historical antecedent and today's current events. Catch a Fire poses a question that many will find uncomfortable: what is the distinction between a "terrorist" and a "freedom fighter?" From Patrick's perspective, his activities, which may involve the killing of innocents, are justified under the circumstances. As Vos sees it, he's a criminal and a law-breaker and must be punished. Since the movie is presented with Patrick as the hero, our sympathies lie with him.

It's to director Phillip Noyce's credit that he doesn't take the easy route and develop Vos as a one dimensional villain. He is given a family and a conscience; he loves his wife and his children. The man does some horrible things, but he's not a monster. Much like Kenneth Branagh's character in Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence, an attempt is made to provide an understanding of the bad guy rather than demonizing him and giving the audience license to boo and hiss without considering his position.

Derek Luke's passionate portrayal of Patrick is the kind of performance that could earn an Oscar nomination if there's the right convergence of factors. The torture sequences, which are not explicit, seem rougher than what's depicted on screen because of the way Luke plays them. The role affords him the opportunity to show range: gentleness as a father and husband, anguish at the betrayal by his government, and righteous anger as he strikes back. Appearing opposite Luke, Robbins is adequate but not arresting as Vos. Robbins' performance lacks energy, although that could be the point - to show how bone-weary Vos is about the conflict. (The real Patrick makes a brief appearance immediately before the end credits to provide an "update" about what he has been doing since the end of Apartheid.)

Catch a Fire adds another brand of diversity to Noyce's cinematic bonfire. He's a director who can move smoothly from Hollywood (Patriot Games) to independent fare (The Quiet American), and who never shies away from controversial subjects or allegorical material. There aren't many directors who share that versatility. Catch a Fire isn't edgy like some of Noyce's previous titles nor is it a big-budget endeavor with A-list stars. Instead, it's a simple and sincere tale of inspiration. It's possible to see a deeper level to what's on screen but, regardless of whether or not a viewer chooses to engage the film in that way, it's an effective piece of cinema.

Catch a Fire (United Kingdom/South Africa/United States, 2006)

Director: Phillip Noyce
Cast: Derek Luke, Tim Robbins, Bonnie Henna, Mncedisi Shabangu, Tumisho Masha
Screenplay: Shawn Slovo
Cinematography: Ron Fortunato
Music: Philip Miller
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2006-10-27
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: Some English subtitled Afrikaans, Zulu
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1