Directed by: Phillip Noyce
Premise: The story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), an apolitical oil refinery foreman and youth soccer coach living in South Africa under apartheid. After he wrongly becomes a suspect in a terrorist attack by an anti-apartheid organization, Patrick becomes the target of government agent Nic Vos (Tim Robbins). After Patrick’s family is threatened, he ends up joining the resistance and carrying out terrorist activities.
What Works: The first half of Catch a Fire does a nice job with Chamusso’s story. The performances in the film are first rate, especially Luke as Patrick and Robbins as Vos. Like some of his other roles as a villain, Robbins brings a humanity to the role that allows his character to have more depth than a simple bad guy.
What Doesn’t: The film’s subversive intentions fall far short. The film does not fully illustrate the injustices of apartheid and as a result the story does not have the political or thematic weight it needs. Somewhat troubling in the film is its oversimplified view of terrorism. The picture attempts to justify the methods of the resistance but then dodges all the ethical issues surrounding the topic, preferring instead for a simplified conflict. One of the most critical questions that the film does not address is the significance of the power plant and what destroying it represents for the resistance. Exactly why this is a target is unclear and that robs the climax of excitement because there is no weight to Chamusso’s goals. The reconciliatory denouement of the film feels tagged on and sets up themes that are contradictory to the rest of the picture.
Bottom Line: Catch a Fire aspires to superior films like A Dry White Season and Munich. Ironically, this subversive film is itself undermined by a faulty ending. The film makes for a mildly interesting action picture, but it is a disappointment because it could have been so much more.
Episode: #117 (November 12, 2006)