Tim Robbins has a reputation as being one of the most politically aware actors in Hollywood, so it is no surprise that he would team up with Phillip Noyce, an Australian director known for making bug budget action movies like Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games, but of late, has concentrated on smaller more socially aware films.
Set in 1980, Catch a Fire tells the real life story of Patrick Chamusso, (Derek Luke), an apolitical oil refinery foreman at the Secunda oil refinery in rural South Africa who turns to radical politics after being imprisoned and tortured for a plant bombing he did not commit.
Robbins plays Security Branch Colonel Nic Vos, head of a government anti-terrorist task force who isn’t afraid to use force to coerce a confession from his prisoners. Chamusso’s wrongful arrest and subsequent torture pushes him to retaliate, join the outlawed ANC and commit an act of sabotage that lands him in the brutal Robben Island prison for a decade.
Catch a Fire succeeds because of the complexity of the two leads. Derek Luke is winning as Chamusso, who like the hero of Hotel Rwanda, another recent film set in Africa, morphs into a rebel after seeing first hand the misuse of power. When we first meet the straight-as-an-arrow Chamusso he’s a simple family man who wants to maintain the status quo. He wants to have a good job, to buy his wife nice things, raise his kids and stay out of trouble, but those wants are stripped away when Vos enters his life. Luke gets under Chamusso’s skin, believably showing how a man can change when pushed to the limit.
Robbins rides a fine line between playing Vos as a monster, someone who tortures people and breaks the rules in the name of law and order, and an ordinary foot soldier in what he perceived was a civil war. He humanizes Vos, allowing the viewer to look beyond the surface and see him for what he is, a flawed patriot.
Working from a strong script by Shawn Slovo, daughter of Joe Slovo who ran the military wing of the ANC, and aided by a marvelous soundtrack of South African freedom songs, Phillip Noyce has delivered a movie that takes advantage of his experience making big budget thrillers, but never lets the action overwhelm the film’s core message of fighting against oppression.