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Catch a Fire

Catch a Fire beats a two hour history lecture, but there's something missing in this triumph over adversity.


Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) is a simple family man in South Africa during the '80s Apartheid era. He comes home from his oil rig job to take care of his wife and children and stays out of trouble. Still, Police Security agent Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) singles Chamusso out for questioning under suspicion of allying with the African National Congress. The Security Branch considers the ANC terrorists because they oppose Apartheid. In fact, Vos is so obsessed with security that he teaches his lovely young daughters how to fire guns. Therefore, no alibi Chamusso can provide satisfies Vos' paranoia. He takes the interrogation so far that he threatens Chamusso's wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna). Chamusso finally gives in to save his family, but when released, he decides if he's already considered a terrorist, he might as well actually join the ANC. Getting deeper and deeper into the violent activities of the ANC, Chamusso leaves his family altogether. This true story follows his exploits against the corrupt government and its emotional costs.


South Africa is as far away from Hollywood as we can get and this is the kind of movie in which actors get to really show off, transforming into people almost from another world. Luke pulls a Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda. We know Luke is a red-blooded American boy, but he sounds like a native South African here. Not only the accent, but he carries himself like someone who never knew the comforts of the suburbs. Robbins also produces an uncanny South African/Dutch accent. His Nic Vos is the scariest kind of bad guy, so frustratingly sure of himself it is beyond evil. He has legitimate reason to fear for his family's safety in the volatile political and social climate, but could he be any more smug? Henna has the most visceral part. As the wife caught up in both sides of Chamusso's life, she suffers as innocent bait and then gets abandoned for her husband's obsession. She cries her heart out and it always feels genuine, not just a show for the cameras. All three are sure to be considered come Oscar nomination season, though one may wonder if the film was written specifically for that reason.


Director Phillip Noyce has done a couple of Tom Clancy movies and espionage thrillers like The Saint and The Quiet American, so he knows how to handle everything in Catch a Fire. The first half of the movie is full of suspense, as the audience wonders whether Vos has found a real terrorist or persecuting an innocent. Once Chamusso turns full on rebel, it's an action movie. Things blow up with the visual flair of epic spectacle. Unfortunately, it all tends to come across as hollow, technically proficient but lacking in heart. The story has so much tragedy inherent to it, it's tricky to put it on film in a genuine way. It seems Noyce just wants us to experience another atrocity so we feel miserable for 90 minutes, then give us a little redemption so we leave feeling OK about the human condition. Perhaps it is unfair to compare Fire to Hotel Rwanda, another powerful movie about Africa which affected audiences so greatly. But there is something to be said for styles of storytelling. Hotel Rwanda is a story of personal survival within politics. This is very much about politics overwhelming human beings. The identification with Vos provides enough moral ambiguity, but more tension in the second half may have made it more tragic, rather than just someone pushed to the edge.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 1/2 stars.