Catch a Fire Review
By Shawn McKenzie 10/29/2006
In 1980, South African Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) is a black man who is amongst the 25 million blacks living with the three million whites in the country…yet he is racially suppressed, because the country is ruled by apartheid. He keeps his head low though…and his willingness to be apolitical means that he has a decent life with a supportive wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna), two daughters, Lindiwe (Onthatile Ramasodi) and Albertina (Ziizi Mahlati), and a good job working as the foreman at the Secunda oil refinery. He also coaches the town’s junior soccer team, which includes star player Sixpence (Sithembiso Khumalo), the nephew of his friend Zuko September (Mncedisi Shabangu), who also works at the oil refinery. Zuko is just one his coworkers who have joined the ANC (African National Congress), a social-democratic political party whose military wing (MK) practices sabotage against government installations (though with the hope that there are no human casualties.) When the oil refinery is bombed, Patrick and Zuko are arrested under suspicion that they are terrorists. Security Branch Colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), who works for the security branch of the government’s anti-terrorism squad, is the man who is in charge of the investigation. Nic, who also has a supportive wife, Anna (Michele Burgers), and two daughters, Katie (Jessica Anstey) and Marie (Charlotte Savage), believes in his head that he is doing the right thing by participating in apartheid. Patrick proclaims his innocence, but he doesn’t have a good alibi for where he was at the time of the bombing. He really does have a true alibi though…but it is one that he doesn’t want to tell Nic. At the time of the bombing, he was with Miriam (Terry Pheto), his secret girlfriend (with whom they have a son, played by Onalenna Mokoboto), after an away soccer match. He didn’t want to admit this to Nic, because he didn’t want it to get back to Precious. Nic and his men torture Patrick to get information out of him, and they also harass and torture Precious. Patrick lies and confesses that he was involved, but Nic eventually lets him go. Patrick is so infuriated by the treatment that he was given that he decides to leave his family, join the ANC, and exact revenge on the government for the pain and suffering that he and his family went through. He fights under the MK’s chief-of-staff Joe Slovo (Malcolm Purkey) and Special Ops member Motso “Obadi” Mokgabudi (Tumisho K. Masha) with the next target being a larger attack on the Secunda oil refinery, in the hopes that he can help end apartheid.
I’m not sure what to say about Catch a Fire. I can tell you that it was directed by Phillip Noyce, an Australian director who had his greatest success with two of the Harrison Ford/Jack Ryan movies, 1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger. The director then went onto political, critically acclaimed smaller films like The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence (both from 2002, and both films that I have yet to see.) Beyond that, it was hard for me to connect with it.
My best guess is that I couldn’t connect with the movie’s story. It was mainly about the struggle against apartheid…something that I know little about. The only reference to apartheid I remember when I was a kid was the 1985 all-star single “Sun City” by Artists United Against Apartheid (written and produced by Steven van Zandt.) Since apartheid ended in South Africa in 1991, and Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 (succeeded by Thabo Mbeki), the issue hasn’t been in the forefront for 15 years now. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t important…but that it is an issue that is now part of world history, and not a current issue. You could almost think of this movie as a historical piece rather than political commentary. As I said…I don’t know much about the subject.
Part of the problem was that it was a little boring to me. Fortunately, it wasn’t very long (it clocks in at one hour and 41 minutes.) Yes…the movie has good acting and some action…but the parts that were slow were really slow. The political dialogue reminded me of the fictional political dialogue in the three Star Wars prequels. Those scenes were always the dullest to me. I don’t know…maybe I can only identify with political talk when it affects me personally (as much as I like the Star Wars movies, I can’t identify with space rebel alliance and galactic empire discussions, since they aren’t real.) I guess you could say that I am about as apolitical as Patrick is in the beginning of the movie.
I’m not going to knock the acting…with the exception of one performance. Luke was exceptional as Patrick, and I believe that this might be his best work since his theatrical acting debut in 2002’s Antwone Fisher. Henna was also good as Precious. This movie is her starring acting debut, and it might win her better, more high profile roles in the future. Robbins, on the other hand, has done a better job in the past. His Afrikaans accent sounds odd and not natural coming out of his mouth, and his role doesn’t seem to be fully realized. Luke may get some awards nods, but I don’t think that Robbins will see any for this role.
Shawn Slovo…who happens to be the daughter of the late South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo (and the sister of Robyn Slovo, who produced the movie), wrote Catch a Fire. It shares the same name as Bob Marley & the Wailers’ 1973 major label debut album, and it features many Marley songs in it (another good thing that I can admit that I liked.) Otherwise, I think that only fans of world political films may find it interesting (specifically films dealing with the topic of apartheid), or if they are a fan of one of the actors. I know that I am in the minority (it is currently receiving a 79% Fresh rating on the Tomatometer as of this writing), and several people who saw advanced screenings of it liked it as well…but the movie never caught on fire with me.
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