In a week where the big box office draw is the mindless torture-fest Saw III, it’s refreshing to find a movie that is actually thought-provoking. Set in South Africa during the 1980s, as apartheid’s hold on the country was just beginning to wane, Phillip Noyce’s Catch a Fire is an extremely topical, occasionally touching look at the causes of terrorism, and how the reasons behind it usually are not as simple as some may have you believe.
The film follows Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke, Glory Road), an oil refinery foreman who is more concerned with providing for his family than the political turmoil that is going on around him. It is not until the refinery that he works at is attacked and he and his wife are brought in for questioning and ultimately beaten and tortured that Patrick first begins to question the system that is in place.
There are many questions and ideas that can be raised within the confines of this premise, and Noyce has seemingly covered them all. He manages to examine everything from the power of forgiveness to what, exactly, defines a man — not to mention the overriding theme of how violence will always beget more violence, until that cycle is broken. Despite all this, the material is handled in a subtle fashion that’s never overwhelming. The parallels between America’s current administration with its War on Terror and South Africa’s means of combating terrorism are there, but it is up to the viewer to decide whether or not he or she wants to pay attention to them (though ignoring them would mean missing Noyce’s point).
Where the movie really excels, however, is in the performances of Derek Luke and Tim Robbins (as police captain Nic Vos) and the dichotomy between their two characters. Luke does an excellent job creating a sympathetic performance, while at the same time bringing an air of simple nobility to his character. Patrick has been led on this path as a way to bring honor to his family and his people. Even more impressive might be Robbins’ performance, who seems to have been asked for the first time in years (and possibly in his entire career) to actually act. His South African accent is spot-on, and he manages to bring an undercurrent of menace to his character (the scene where Nic offers the young boy, Sixpence (newcomer Sithembiso Khumalo), a piece of bubble gum borders on brilliant). Nic is a man who wants to protect his country from the “terrorists and communists” by any means necessary. If this means torture and murder, then so be it. While they are in direct opposition to one another, in the end both men want the same things: to do what each believes is right for his family and their way of life.
Despite all the film’s strong points, and the fact that there are no glaring weaknesses, it never manages to truly reach excellence. While it comes close on occasion, it never achieves the weightiness or urgency of Syriana (2005) or the visual panache of The Constant Gardener (2005) to truly be memorable (though I get the feeling that many might place it in that category). Yet, what you are left with is what seems to be the rarest of things these days: a movie that asks you to think. Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving torture and abuse, violence and brief language.
— reviewed by Justin Souther