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"CATCH A FIRE"
(2006) (Derek Luke, Tim Robbins) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A white government investigator tries to figure out whether a black refinery worker is responsible for recent bombings there and elsewhere in South Africa, resulting in the peaceful man rethinking his stance on terrorism and becoming a member of the ANC.
PLOT:
It's 1980 in South Africa and Patrick Chamusso (DEREK LUKE) is a black man with a loving wife, Precious (BONNIE HENNA), healthy kids, and a good job working at the local refinery. He enjoys playing soccer with his friend Zuko September (MNCEDISI SHABANGU) and that man's nephew, Sixpence (SITHEMBISO KHUMALO), and will do anything not to rock the boat and thus endanger his comfortable lifestyle despite him and all other blacks living under apartheid. That's led many of his coworkers to join the ANC (African National Congress), an underground organization determined to undermine the government, including through terrorism.

That's drawn the attention of white family man Nic Vos (TIM ROBBINS), who works for the security branch of the government's anti-terrorism squad. After a recent bombing at the refinery, he has Patrick and Zuko arrested under suspicion of the crime, especially since Patrick doesn't have a good alibi for his whereabouts when the attack took place. It turns out that he was with his secret lover following an away soccer match, and can't tell the truth lest it get back to Precious.

Obviously suspicious of that and him, Nic and his men put the squeeze on Patrick, including interrogating his wife. When they eventually let him go, Patrick is so incensed that he decides to give up his life as he knows it, join the ANC, and get revenge on the government that's wronged him. From that point on, he trains to become a covert operative for the terrorist group, all as Nic tries to figure out where he's gone and then stop him before he carries out a destructive act.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
All sorts of topics fall into the old chicken versus the egg debate about which came first. One of the more prominent ones of recent has been the controversy of whether the presence of U.S. military forces in Iraq is serving as a catalyst for an uptick in terrorism around the world. Some argue that it is, while others state the U.S. is just responding to previous terrorism and trying to quell future attacks.

Of course, this debate is nothing new, and has been going on probably as long as the first terrorist acts. And it's the driving force behind the compelling drama, "Catch a Fire," a film that looks back on South African politics and that country's attempts to stop its black citizens -- their "terrorists" -- from putting an end to Apartheid.

In it, Tim Robbins plays Nic Vos, a culturally elite white government interrogator and investigator who's trying to figure out who's been attacking an energy plant in Transvaal. Charming in a menacing sort of way, he's been ordered to get to the bottom of this matter, which has lead him to plant foreman Patrick Chamusso, terrifically portrayed by Derek Luke.

The latter claims he had nothing to do with the recent bombings, but we at least know he's not completely innocent, as he's been cheating on his wife with another woman (with whom he's had an illegitimate child). Since he was with her on the night of a recent attack, he can't disclose that to Robbins' character lest it possibly get back to his wife. The interrogator obviously knows something is up, and gives him an agonizing physical and psychological shakedown to try to find out what that is, including hauling in the man's wife (Bonnie Henna) and giving her a similar once-over and then some.

Desperate to save her and guilty over his non-political indiscretion that's now dragged his wife into the fray, Patrick confesses that he's the bomber. It's then that Vos reveals what's probably his most insidious act - he lets both of them go. Some have argued that's simply due to lack of evidence and that Patrick's subsequent turn to the "dark side" is just a reactionary act of desiring comeuppance for the injustice he and his wife endured.

I agree with the latter part, but think the interrogator also knew that would happen, and thus created a monster who might lead him and his forces directly into the enemy's stronghold and lair. The problem -- just ask anyone, such as Dr. Frankenstein -- is that created monsters have a bad habit of behaving in ways one couldn't imagine. Thus, while Vos accomplishes part of his goal by turning Patrick into a homing beacon sort of terrorist, his creation has unexpected consequences for all who are involved.

All of that plays out in a convincing, engaging, and rather compelling fashion in director Phillip Noyce's adaptation of screenwriter Shawn Slovo's part historical and part fictionalized look at the real-life Chamusso. The writer's late father, Joe Slovo, encouraged her to write about those times, as he had been head of the military wing of the ANC (African National Congress) and worked with Patrick in planning the latter's single-handed attack on the Secunda Oil Refinery.

Using the backdrop of Apartheid, Noyce, Slovo, and their crew do a decent job of showcasing the racial tensions of those days, as well as the notable contrast between the lives of Nos and Chamusso, all in examining the fact that attempts to quell terrorists sometimes simply act as a catalyst to churn out new ones. With solid performances from the leads and supporting cast members, taut storytelling and a fairly decent balance between the drama (historical and fictional) and standard movie suspense (the race against time, the cat and mouse material, etc., the film is a brisk and certainly thought-provoking experience.

That said, it's not exactly a novel offering and at time it feels a little old, a point that I supposed naturally goes with its period setting, but nevertheless steals a bit of its dramatic thunder. Luke, whose transformation from previous "adolescent" type roles to adult figure is quite astounding and completely believable (although it's about time as he is 32 after all), does create a flawed but still sympathetic character.

Yet, the film doesn't quite grab you by the throat or heartstrings as much as it probably should, especially considering the life upheaval his character experiences. Robbins, who's played slick menace a time or two in his past (think "Arlington Road"), is similarly convincing not exactly as the villain per se (although his government represents that), but rather as the antagonist to Luke's protagonist. Supporting performances from Henna and others are solid across the board, as is all of the technical work.

With the story a good fit for Noyce's cinematic leanings, the picture moves along at a good clip, with the outcome in doubt for most everyone save for those who have knowledge of the real life story behind the offering. While nothing that will likely blow away most viewers, the film is nevertheless a solid bit of compelling and engaging storytelling with stellar performances driving it from start to finish. "Catch a Fire" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed August 30, 2006 / Posted October 27, 2006


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