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The Fire Last Time

Resistance is defense in Philip Noyce's Apartheid-era thriller Catch a Fire.



Phillip Noyce is an Australian director who established himself in Hollywood during the 1990s with a series of forgettable commercial projects (Sliver, Patriot Games, The Saint, The Bone Collector), but in the current decade he's taken a hard left turn with a series of smaller movies that deal with global political situations -- typically the clash of indigenous cultures and white intruders. In 2002, he delivered two such films, an expert adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, with Michael Caine as a British journalist witnessing American misadventures in Vietnam, and Rabbit-Proof Fence, about aboriginal rights in Noyce's native country.

Noyce's newest, Catch a Fire, about the last throes of apartheid in South Africa, fits in neatly with those films. It's based on the true story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), an oil-refinery foreman and soccer coach who is steadfastly apolitical even as societal tensions flair around him.

Patrick lives in a shanty town adjacent to the Secunda Oil Refinery with his wife, Precious, his two daughters, and a mother-in-law who -- much to Patrick's disapproval -- listens to pirate African National Congress radio broadcasts at night.

But the quiet equilibrium of Patrick's life is broken when he is arrested under suspicion of committing a bombing at the refinery. A government security agent (Tim Robbins), fearful of further "terrorist" attacks and desperate to stop them, has Patrick tortured in pursuit of information, ultimately abducting and roughing up his wife in an attempt to break him.

This experience radicalizes Patrick: He travels to Mozambique to train with an ANC cell and re-enters the country to attempt an attack similar to the one he was falsely accused of before.

Like The Quiet American, Catch a Fire is true to its historical period while emerging as a commentary (intentional or not) on present-day American domestic politics/foreign policy. What is terrorism? When is violent resistance justified? What is the real purpose of torture and what impact does it have not only on the tortured but the torturer? Catch a Fire forces viewers to confront these types of questions, though the gulf between the historical oppression that inspired ANC resistance and the root causes of current terrorism make these questions tricky. Certainly, Noyce doesn't mean to imply any correspondence between the ANC and al-Qaeda.

Tim Robbins plays a role similar to that of Kenneth Branagh in Rabbit-Proof Fence -- he's not a monster but a normal bureaucrat, a man of his times whose service for a racist government puts him on the wrong side of history.

Robbins is perhaps a bit too subdued, but the film gets a magnetic lead performance from Derek Luke, a young African-American actor who has made appearances in sports movies (Glory Road, Friday Night Lights) but whose most telling performance to date was probably as Katie Holmes' tender boyfriend in Pieces of April. His Patrick is the kind of role and performance that could catapult Luke into the first rank.

Catch a Fire was written by Shawn Slovo, whose parents were leading white South African anti-apartheid activists who are minor characters in the film. Catch a Fire was also shot on location with excellent period music (both South African and, believably, Bob Marley).

Slicker cinematically than The Quiet American or Rabbit-Proof Fence, Noyce seems to have applied the lessons of his Hollywood work to more reputable material, which could mean a better chance at capturing a decent multiplex audience. On the other hand, this is a movie that goes places and asks questions that a lot of American moviegoers may not be willing to confront right now.

Catch a Fire

Opening Friday, October 27th

Multiple locations

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