Few modern directors have enjoyed as remarkable and rewarding a turnaround as Phillip Noyce.
Long trapped in a for-hire hell of Hollywood thrillers (The Saint, The Bone Collector), Noyce rebounded in 2002 with geo-politically astute films Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American.
But Noyce gets disjointed with Catch a Fire, an apartheid-era tale of South Africa that prefers a slick surface treatment to cutting into the bones-deep legacy of South Africa’s racial division.
Shawn Slovo, daughter of real-life anti-apartheid activist Joe Slovo, wrote the film, which begins in 1980 and ends after apartheid’s dissolution in 1994. So it’s no surprise there are several heartfelt, momentarily gripping laments for the divisiveness of this South African law, which fostered a mistaking of infectious ideologies and indoctrinations for nationalistic pride.
How the idea plays out in complex, nuanced performances by Derek Luke and Tim Robbins is wasted on an action climax as sleek and empty as almost anything Noyce shot from 1992 to 2002. Also, if anti-apartheid groups saw violence as a last resort, there’s little sense of that in a film that uneasily makes this terrorism too often feel tantamount to noble acts.
Luke (Antwone Fisher) plays Patrick Chamusso, a black oil-refinery supervisor able to modestly buck an economic gap inherent to apartheid, the enforced separation of races in South Africa that began in 1948.
Cautious and quiet, Patrick takes no political stance against apartheid, perhaps the reason he and his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna) and their children live in a home and not a shanty. Nevertheless, after a refinery explosion, Patrick is arrested — simply because of his access and, as part of a second-family subplot the movie never handles well, personal reluctance to offer a credible alibi.
Beaten and bloodied by an anti-terrorist squad in a remote location, Patrick eventually meets the squad’s leader, Colonel Nic Vos (Robbins), who prefers mental torture to physical interrogation.
Robbins finds an incredibly tricky humanity in Vos, clearly a decent man doing the devil’s work while struggling to rightly raise, and protect, his own family. Vos descends so fully into his job to cover up his conflictions — he’d as soon as see apartheid abolished as anyone else, but rounding up its opponents at whatever cost feeds his family. In the film’s most powerful scene, Vos takes Patrick to his home for dinner while both men know Precious is in poverty without Patrick’s paycheck.
Such tactics ultimately wear Patrick down into a false confession, at which point he’s set free. Vos knows Patrick had nothing to do with this bombing, but doesn’t realize he’s pushed Patrick to the point of planning a more-destructive explosion with the rebel African National Congress.
Luke delivers a powerhouse performance as a man capable of duplicitous lies, but not crimes. Watching him spit through a system of suspicion is arresting. It’s a shame, then to see him stuck only waving the film’s flag for the third act.
Patrick abruptly adapts a terrorist’s mentality with none of the introspection of the bombers of Paradise Now or assassins of Munich — better films about politically futile violence than this. Any understanding of how Patrick reconciles his actions with his family and his country is confined to a simple ending. Schmaltzy forgiveness seems to bandage all wounds, and ill-advised closing-credits shots of Luke clowning around with the real Chamusso.
Yes, like nearly all movies ending this way, it suggests that a documentary about Chamusso and Vos (or whatever cop composites from which he’s drawn) would have been far more resonant. Surprisingly, for its director and subject matter, Catch a Fire does more to exploit its characters’ positions for plot purposes than explain them through engaging discourse.