'Catch a Fire'
Timing Seems Wrong for a So-So Movie About Apartheid
Director Phillip Noyce ("Rabbit-Proof Fence," "The Quiet American") has re-created the bleak days when being black in South Africa was enough to get you arrested, tortured and, if you survived, shipped off to prison on the infamous Robben Island, where you were at least in good company (most notably Nelson Mandela). If you were even suspected of being a member of the African National Congress (ANC), you could count on all of the above miseries befalling you at some point.
Patrick Chamusso, a real-life revolutionary played with stoic blandness by Derek Luke, was just trying to get through his days, enjoy his family and coach a soccer team. Living a studiously apolitical life with his wife and two children in Secunda, east of Johannesburg, Chamusso had just become a foreman at the local oil refinery and was not anxious to reverse this ascension with any talk of unrest or rebellion.
Unforeseen events, including wrongful accusations of terrorism, transform him into a freedom fighter willing to give up his home and his family to unravel the white majority rule. As he becomes increasingly embedded in the group, his insider knowledge of the oil refinery proves invaluable to ANC functionaries.
Chamusso's nemesis is anti-terrorism chief Nic Vos (Tim Robbins, in a one-note performance consisting primarily of clenched jaw and unblinking eyes). During Chamusso's first incarceration, Vos tries everything in his arsenal to break his prisoner--the good cop thing, the family man thing, the tough love thing. Throughout, Robbins maintains that single facial expression, which is an impressive physical feat but doesn't make for a particularly compelling character.
Likewise, Luke, who has proven himself a solid, even first-rate actor ("Antwone Fisher," "Friday Night Lights") is hemmed in by a role that tries to toe the line between saint and fallible human being, but, like so many other unabashedly deferential biopics, errs on the side of the former.
Noyce is an impressive director, and his lively pacing, combined with buoyant traditional music and, fittingly, Bob Marley tunes, keep interest levels reasonably high. It's just that the action, political intrigue and marital tensions (which prove critical as the story unfolds) never quite coalesce into a compelling whole. The film, which was made with the full cooperation of the people portrayed (the screenplay was penned by the daughter of an ANC leader) and was shot on location in South Africa and Mozambique, was clearly undertaken with the best of intentions but winds up feeling pat and manipulative. The horrors of apartheid deserve a better treatment than this.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving torture and abuse, violence and brief language).