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Catch a Fire
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Well-Meaning Biopic That Lacks A Certain Spark"
3 stars

On paper, “Catch a Fire” sounds like it should be a slam-dunk example of an intelligent, adult-themed drama. It tells a true story that opens our eyes to a story that many American audiences may be unfamiliar and which remains powerfully relevant to the times that we live in today. It contains strong and effective performances from a cast consisting of a mixture of reliable veterans and surprising newcomers. It has been directed by someone who has demonstrated in the past a facility for handling nail-biting suspense, hard-hitting politics and tender scenes of human drama. And yet, after watching the film, I found myself walking away from it feeling that something was missing from it. A story like this should leave a viewer feeling something–rage and sadness over what the characters endure or hopefulness over the fact that they did endure those things–but I felt nothing but indifference. This is agitprop without the pop and while it may have its share of good intentions and worthwhile elements, those things don’t make it add up into a truly satisfying viewing experience.

Set in South Africa during the early 1980's–a time when the black majority of the population was still under the oppressive rule of the whites in power–the film tells the story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a pleasant young family man who tries to make the best of a bad situation by remaining apolitical, being deferential to those in power and staying out of trouble at home and at his job as a foreman for the local oil refinery. This isn’t easy as it sounds–the color of his skin is still enough to inspire white cops to pull him over for a humiliating search on the grounds that a black man driving a car is inherently suspicious while his non-confrontational manner causes some of his more radicalized neighbors and co-workers to look upon him as a sort of Uncle Tom doing whatever he can to please the white man–but it is the way that he has chosen to live his life to provide for his wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna), and their children. That life is shattered forever one day when a bomb goes off at the refinery and Patrick, since he wasn’t at work that day, is taken into custody by the police, led by Colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) for questioning.

Patrick’s problem is that while he was out of town for a perfectly good reason–the youth soccer team he coaches was playing a championship away game–part of his time away was spent doing something not so easily explained by someone with a wife and family and he winds up making things worse for himself by trying to lie about it. Thus begins a long and brutal period of interrogation for Patrick that becomes even more harrowing when, in an effort to get him to talk, the police arrest Precious and abuse her as well. Eventually, the two are released to resume their now-shattered lives. With nothing left to lose–his job and family are both gone–Patrick decides to look into joining the African National Congress, an outlaw group dedicated to bringing down the system of apartheid by any means necessary. Narrowly avoiding death after a surprise attack on his group by the police, Patrick is recruited to plant some more bombs in the refinery to finish up the job that he was accused of doing in the first place.

The basic story of “Catch a Fire” is gripping enough and the notion that ordinary citizens can be turned into fierce revolutionaries (or terrorists, depending on how you look at it) ready and willing to wreak violent havoc on the system if they are pushed too far by that system is one that resonates as strongly today as it did back in the time of this particular story–apartheid may have ended but brutal oppression by a police force willing to ignore even the most basic human rights certainly hasn’t. And yet, while the film has a gripping story, director Phillip Noyce and screenwriter Shawn Slovo have inexplicably chosen to bomb through it in only 98 minutes of running time. Not only that, they have also chosen to include a number of irrelevant scenes involving Vos and how his family, despite his power, aren’t immune from the growing tensions in the country. (Inevitably, he has one daughter who doesn’t want to learn to shoot a gun in order to defend herself from a possible attack and, just as inevitably, she winds up having to do just that later on.) As a result, the main story is so rushed that we don’t really get a sense of the transformation of Patrick from ordinary citizen to committed political radical–here, it just sort of happens–and the final scenes, in which Patrick is finally released from prison for his bombing attempt into a South Africa that he helped free, are dealt with so abruptly that they are over almost before they have begun. Although it may sound like a strange thing to say at a time when every other movie in release could easily stand to lose 10-15 minutes, I have the strangest suspicion that “Catch a Fire” might have been a far more effective work if it had been a half-hour longer and allowed the story to unfold at a more gradual pace.

This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have its merits. The performances by Derek Luke and Tim Robbins are both gripping and effective and newcomer Bonnie Henna is extraordinarily moving and touching as Precious. Noyce–whose previous feature, “The Quiet American,” makes an interesting companion piece to this film–does a good job of conveying both the ordinary day-to-day existence of people living under the yoke of apartheid and the sheer righteous anger of those driven to bring it down. At the same time, he once again demonstrates, as he did in such earlier efforts as “Dead Calm” and “Clear and Present Danger,” that he is as good at directing sequences of white-knuckle tension as effectively as anyone working today–the cat-and-mouse refinery chase between Patrick and Vos that serves as the climax is as well-done as any such scene in recent memory. See, there is a lot to “Catch a Fire” that I liked–I just think that it would have been as powerful of an experience as it clearly thinks it is if there had just been more of it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15082&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/27/06 00:00:30
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2006 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2006 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/07/09 Jeff Wilder Great drama and great performances. Only drawback is a somewhat anticlimactic ending. 4 stars
4/19/08 roderick campani any human, even LYBARGER himself, does have his weaknesses. dont tell me you dont have one 4 stars
2/20/07 action movie fan decemt tale of radicalization-something of value (1957) was alot better 3 stars
2/05/07 William Goss Compelling true story of wronged man forced to do the right thing only stumbles at end. 4 stars
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  27-Oct-2006 (PG-13)
  DVD: 30-Jan-2007



[trailer] Trailer

Directed by
  Phillip Noyce

Written by
  Shawn Slovo

  Robert Hobbs
  Derek Luke
  Tim Robbins
  Bonnie Henna

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