Australian director Philip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence) applies his authentic sense of cinematic storytelling to the real-life story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke—Antoine Fisher), an apolitical South African oil refinery engineer who joins a revolution against the violent apartheid regime after government goons torture him and his wife (Bonnie Henna). Tim Robbins plays Police Security Colonel Nic Vos who takes a special interest in keeping tabs on Patrick after he is released from suspicion of carrying out a bombing at the Secunda oil plant.
Filmed on location in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Mozambique, Catch a Fire is an incendiary movie about an individual’s desperate decision to battle a corrupt government system after being mentally and psychically abused. Here, one man’s story illuminates the way that government-sponsored torture polarizes human beings and gives birth to terrorists.
Although Patrick Chamusso’s story occurred between 1980 and 1981 in Africa, it resonates with escalating social oppression within the United States by a government obsessed with fomenting the exact conditions of terror that it claims to prohibit. Patrick’s social awakening comes after he experiences anguish typical of what victims of serial killers and sociopaths suffer. His brutal interrogation is aggravated by the simultaneous defilement of his wife with whom he shares a jail cell.
Through Patrick’s punishment we witness an ordinary man transformed into a vengeful soul. Few people would argue that they would not respond with vengeance if they or their spouse suffered a fraction of the abuse that anti-terrorist organizations practice on their victims, and the filmmaker makes no case for Patrick’s perceived options of leaving the country or turning the other cheek.
Patrick is a loyal family man who volunteers his time as a soccer coach for local kids, but he maintains an adulterous life with a woman from his past, and it’s this indiscretion that contributes to his fallibility as a suspect. Patrick’s capacity for deception foreshadows his decision to abandon his family in order to train with the African National Congress freedom fighters in Mozambique before going to Angola for indoctrination with the ANC’s military branch, the MK [Umkhonto we Sizwe]. Derek Luke builds layers of tension over his character’s emotional wounds, and conveys a ferocity that is staggering for its depth.
Nic Vos is a walking contradiction of family man and ruthless government pawn. Robbins’ problematic casting creates a wavering narrative disconnect in spite of the skilled actor’s best efforts at fleshing out what is obviously a composite person created by screenwriter Shawn Slovo, the daughter of the late South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo.
If anything, Robbins keeps such a tight a lid on his character that we can only gauge his hostility and underlying fear as part of a larger alien machine called apartheid. Robbins falls back on his favorite prop, a toothpick that flutters from his lips to remind us that Nic Vos is constantly on a hair trigger.
The film escalates into a third-act crisis that seems like it was pulled from an old Bruce Willis action movie. Patrick uses his intimate knowledge of the Secunda oil plant to attempt a sabotage operation that will bring down the entire refinery. The pushy action overture comes off as little more than a perfunctory chase scene with a predictable outcome that undercuts the more serious tone of the movie.
Noyce fudges the script contrivance with a closing episode that allows an older Patrick to quietly bury the cycle of cruelty that consumed his conscience. The shorthand narrative gesture is too abrupt to be completely effective, but it does support the idea that forgiveness is always an option. MTW