Dipping into South Africa’s well of inspiring stories from the antiapartheid struggle, “Catch a Fire” profiles Patrick Chamusso, the unassuming refinery worker who, impelled by activist DNA and red-hot circumstances, took revolutionary action to help end an oppressive regime. While its themes make dullsville impossible, this biodrama can’t overcome the Hollywood recipe affecting its compass. It shapes up as a vital but contrived portrait of a man and a movement worthy of truer consideration.
The director is Phillip Noyce, who generally fares well with smaller-scale political dramas (“Rabbit-Proof Fence,” “The Quiet American”) and middling to lousy with conventional thrillers (“Patriot Games,” “The Saint”). Both outcomes exist here.
Derek Luke plays Chamusso, who, when introduced, in 1980, is an apolitical oil-refinery foreman who poses no threat to South Africa’s racist system. But then he experiences its brutality firsthand.
Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a heinously machinating security-force colonel, falsely accuses Chamusso of participating in a bombing that has occurred at the plant. He arrests, and has his thugs torture, Chamusso and, later, Chamusso’s wife (Bonnie Henna).
Angry and galvanized, Chamusso fights back. He joins the outlawed African National Congress’ military wing and its efforts to bring down apartheid. He attempts an act of sabotage that would incapacitate the large refinery.
The movie gets some things right.
Screenwriter Shawn Slovo, whose parents were prominent antiapartheid activists, displays insight into predicaments like Chamusso’s, and Noyce, echoing his Graham Greene-based “The Quiet American,” captures the wartime revolutionary mind-set. “Sooner or later … one has to take sides if one is to remain human,” says a character in Greene’s story, and Noyce’s presentation of Chamusso’s transformation vividly illustrates such thinking.
But ultimately, the film, 25 years after the actual events, can’t make its story feel urgent, and the filmmakers end up relying on stock ingredients — chases, shootouts — for juice. You can’t buy this silliness, and the movie becomes, foremost, just another serving of politically tinged entertainment from the industry’s thriller mill.
Catch a Fire **½
Starring Derek Luke, Tim Robbins and Bonnie Henna
Written by Shawn Slovo
Directed by Phillip Noyce
Running time 1 hour, 42 minutes