Catch a Fire takes place in apartheid-era South Africa, but identifying the good guys and bad guys isn’t always as simple as black and white.
Director Phillip Noyce continues his recent streak of historical dramas (Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American) by exploring the true story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), an oil refinery foreman and married father of two young girls who was wrongly accused of sabotaging his workplace in 1980.
But Noyce, who also directed Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger – and before that, the suspenseful Dead Calm, starring a then-unknown Nicole Kidman – applies his longtime action-movie skills here, as well. The richly photographed, fast-paced Catch a Fire is tense and constantly keeps you guessing, even until the very end.
Although he’d been cautious his whole life and reluctant to take a stand politically, which propelled him up the ranks at work, Chamusso is arrested after an explosion at the refinery. Any poor man with black skin could have been a suspect, but he had access, and he can’t explain where he was in the middle of the night when the attack occurred.
Tim Robbins co-stars as Nic Vos, the police colonel investigating the case, and gives the character enough shading to make you wonder: Is he a torture-happy sadist, or a decent man with dubious methods? He’s married with two daughters of his own (and he insists they learn how to fire a gun for protection, a skill that will come in handy later). But he’s also fond of tormenting his captives in ways that are both sly and strident. It’s the most subtle, complex work we’ve seen from Robbins in years.
Similarly, Luke (Antwone Fisher) is totally believable as a kind, hardworking family man who’s also capable of secrets and lies. Bonnie Henna co-stars as Chamusso’s dutiful but conflicted wife, Precious, a former beauty queen who’s constantly suspicious of where her husband is and who he’s with – for good reason, we learn. Chamusso has a son from his involvement with another woman. It’s unclear whether the affair occurred before or after he married Precious, but he still finds ways to sneak around behind his wife’s back.
Eventually, after being beaten and kept from his family for months, he is set free, but he chooses to leave home again of his own volition to fight apartheid as a member of the African National Congress. (His logic being: I’m suspected of such activity anyway, I may as well do it and do something about what’s happening in my country. We’re paraphrasing, but you get the idea.)
His transformation into bomb-toting rebel seems to come out of nowhere and happens a bit too abruptly, but it also introduces us to his fellow fighters, who train in Angola and Mozambique and go by code names like Betsy and Pete My Baby. Regardless of where they came from or what they call themselves, when their leader Obadi (the charismatic Tumishu K. Masha) lines them up and repeatedly shouts at them, “Are you ready to die?” they shout back in unison, “Yes, commander!”
(The screenplay comes from Shawn Slovo, daughter of Joe Slovo and Ruth First, who were white anti-apartheid activists in South Africa.)
And this is what makes Catch a Fire, a film set a quarter-century ago, so relevant today. Attacks are being carried out all over the world in the name of freedom or terrorism, depending on perspective. Torture is happening all over the world, whether or not the people being held truly are responsible for the acts of which they’re accused.
Like last year’s Paradise Now, which showed us Israeli-Palestinian violence through the eyes of two suicide bombers, Catch a Fire is confident enough in itself to depict the battle from all sides.
Catch a Fire, a Focus Features release, is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving torture and abuse, violence and brief language. Running time: 102 minutes. Three stars out of four.