Director Phillip Noyce capably applies the polished technique of his '90s Hollywood action films to the sort of political material that has attracted him of late in "Catch a Fire." But the question nags as to what pressing need there is, 25 years after the fact, for a thriller that hinges on apartheid in South Africa when there are so many new pressing and pertinent political and cultural issues.

Director Phillip Noyce capably applies the polished technique of his ’90s Hollywood action films to the sort of political material that has attracted him of late in “Catch a Fire.” But the question nags as to what pressing need there is, 25 years after the fact, for a thriller that hinges on apartheid in South Africa when there are so many new pressing and pertinent political and cultural issues. Stories of resistance to oppression will never become obsolete, but this feels like a picture that should have been made a long time ago, creating a tough marketing challenge to reignite much public interest in this particular cause.

Pic tells the true story of Patrick Chamusso, an apolitical oil refinery foreman who, during a period spanning 1980-81, was radicalized after having been wrongly accused, imprisoned and tortured for a plant bombing, then carried out a successful sabotage mission of his own that landed him in a cell on Robben Island for a decade.

The would-be relevance of the tale today lies in its account of a home-grown terrorist, a citizen awakened by intolerable conditions to activism and unsuspected extremes in his own behavior. But the situation born of apartheid was very specific of the local phenomenon of 3 million whites lording it over 25 million blacks, so it would be very difficult to apply the rationale for terrorism used here to the conditions provoking it elsewhere today.

Derek Luke (“Antwone Fisher”) engagingly plays Patrick, whose good work and ability to keep his nose down has resulted in a quick rise up the ladder at the Secunda oil refinery in rural South Africa. He’s also popular as a kids’ team soccer coach. But when the oil installation is bombed, Patrick, suspected of having given access to the outlawed African National Congress, is detained at an anti-terrorist interrogation center and grilled by Security Branch Colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins).

For what it’s worth, Nic is not portrayed as a simple monster. A family man who, like Patrick, has two daughters, he is soft-spoken, thoughtful and, in a nice touch, even invites Patrick to join his family for a Sunday meal. The wrinkle in the plot is that Patrick does not want to confess to his true whereabouts on the night of the bombing because it would reveal his adulterous relationship, something that could destroy his family.

But when his wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna), is herself arrested and tortured, Patrick crosses the line. Leaving his family behind, he returns to his native Mozambique to join and train in the MK, or military wing, of the ANC, run by Joe Slovo, the late father of present screenwriter Shawn Slovo. When the first cell is attacked by South African troops (whites wearing blackface, no less), Patrick moves on to Angola for further training before surreptitiously returning to Secunda to attempt a daring mission by himself.

Pic downplays the communist backing of these ANC activities, attributing that view only to Nic, and can’t help but slip into thriller gear once Patrick undertakes his solo commando raid on the facility he knows so intimately. Given the current distance, a more dispassionate presentation of the same events might have emphasized both the complexity and the sadness of the situation on all sides; as with most other screen representations of South Africa, however, the emotion attached to the injustice is paramount.

Luke is winning as Patrick, an obviously sympathetic figure who appears in real-life docu footage at the end running the Two Sisters orphanage where he and his wife have foster-parented 80 orphans. Robbins is almost too subdued as the increasingly conflicted heavy, and the American thesps evince variable accent problems.

Local production elements are strong, as the natural sights and sounds of Africa have been vibrantly captured.

Catch a Fire

U.K.-South Africa-U.S.

Production

A Focus Features release (in U.S.) of a Focus Features presentation in association with StudioCanal of a Working Title/Mirage Enterprises production in association with Scion Films Premier (First) Limited Partnership. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Anthony Minghella, Robyn Slovo. Executive producers, Sydney Pollack, Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin. Directed by Phillip Noyce. Screenplay, Shawn Slovo.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Ron Fortunato, Garry Phillips; editor, Jill Bilcock; music, Philip Miller; music supervisor, Nick Angel; production designer, Johnny Breedt; supervising art director, Delarey Wagener; set designer, Shira Hockman; set decorator, Melinda Launspach; costume designer, Reza Levy; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Derek Mannsvelt; supervising sound editor, Andrew Plain; line producer, Genevieve Hofmeyr; associate producer, Miranda Culley; assistant director, Leigh Tanchel; second unit director, Norman Maake; second unit camera, Giulio Biccari; casting, Susie Figgis. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 2, 2006. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 101 MIN. (English, Afrikaans, Zulu dialogue)

With

Nic Vos - Tim Robbins Patrick Chamusso - Derek Luke Precious Chamusso - Bonnie Henna Zuko September - Mncedisi Shabangu Obadi - Tumisho K. Masha Sixpence - Sithembiso Khumalo Miriam - Terry Pheto Anna Vos - Michele Burgers
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