CATCH A FIRE (director: Phillip Noyce; screenwriter: Shawn Slovo; cinematographers: Ron Fortunato/Garry Phillips; editor: Jill Bilcock; music: Philip Miller; cast: Tim Robbins (Nic Vos), Derek Luke (Patrick Chamusso), Bonnie Henna (Precious Chamusso), Mncedisi Shabangu (Zuko September); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Tim Bevan/Eric Fellner/Anthony Minghella/Robyn Slovo; Focus Features; 2006)
“Though it was earnest in its heartfelt message, the film was not remarkable enough to make it memorable.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title is derived from the first major label album from Bob Marley & the Wailers. It’s a political drama about the nightmare that was South Africa under the apartheid system and the sometimes heroic efforts made to overcome it. Director Phillip Noyce (“The Bone Collector”/”Rabbit-Proof Fence”/”The Quiet American”/”Patriot Games”) bases it on the true story written by Shawn Slovo. The film revisits the past by telling of the ordeal of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), an apolitical black South African oil-refinery worker (who through hard work rises to be a foreman) and soccer coach who was wrongly accused with his wife Precious Chamusso (Bonnie Henna) of crimes against the racist government in the early 1980’s and tortured (accused of a bombing at the Secunda refinery when stopped at a police roadblock when returning from a wedding) and because of that became either a terrorist or freedom fighter (depending on how you look at it) in the war against apartheid. Patrick is placed in solitude and is brutalized by police interrogator, Colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), of the Police Security Branch’s anti-terrorism squad. The once cheerful regular guy, who got along with both the white bosses and the black workers, was a good family man and provider to his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law.

The film goes out of the way to humanize Vos as also a loving family man and show his warped thinking that made him such a cruel interrogator (the self-righteous colonel is convinced the country’s in danger from the Moscow communists he is sure are running the African National Congress). When it’s proven that he’s innocent, a radicalized Patrick becomes a political operative for Nelson Mandela’s ANC (African National Congress). After apartheid is defeated a forgiving Patrick rebuilds his life with a new wife (his wife left him over a flaw in his past life), opens his home as an orphanage (using the real Patrick Chamusso to show this at the end credits) and does not seek revenge because it will not help things get better.

Though the film is rooted in the past of some 25 years, it might still be topical because during the American occupation of Iraq torture may now be a large factor in radicalizing more terrorists. The serious mainstream film’s major problem is that it seems like old news that tries hard to be fresh but its message is too obvious to get excited over its disclosures. The story is meant to be gripping, sobering and heartbreaking, nevertheless seems schematic. The young American actor Luke has the passion to play the African hero with conviction and Robbins makes the Nazi-like security officer a good balance to his radicalized opposite. The shame is that this film meant to be thought-provoking but isn’t and that it isn’t more involving. I always felt distanced from the main characters and, though it was earnest in its heartfelt message, the film was not remarkable enough to make it memorable.

REVIEWED ON 11/28/2006 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”