"Catch a Fire" sounds like an awfully familiar story, and in some ways it is. Movies on the nightmare that was South Africa under the apartheid system and the heroic efforts made to resist it are hardly new, and it is difficult to avoid a sight-unseen dismissal of this latest example as too familiar and too late. Which would be a mistake.
What that analysis doesn't count on, though this story is way more than twice told, is that it has never been told by Derek Luke. The young American actor gives such an intense, passionate performance as South African Patrick Chamusso that he just about dares you not to be involved with the tale he is telling.
Also true is that stories of South African resistance, like stories about the Holocaust, are so various and so simultaneously disturbing and heartening that they bring a built-in viewing interest with them.
Yes, as written by Shawn Slovo, some elements of Chamusso's story feel facile, even schematic. But despite the occasional blip, when Luke's performance is joined to the confident direction of veteran Phillip Noyce ("Rabbit-Proof Fence," "The Quiet American"), "Catch a Fire" does not fail to ignite.
More than that, this story set in South Africa a quarter of a century in the past turns out to have pointed parallels to the world situation today. The use and value of questionable interrogation techniques, the arrogance of those in power and how those elements combine to politicize innocents and create opposition where none existed before are all touched on here.
After a brief prologue set in 1991, "Catch a Fire" spends most of its time in 1980, when Patrick was a cheerful young South African who gave the political situation in his country not so much as a second thought.
Happily married to the beautiful Precious (Bonnie Henna), with two young daughters and his mother to support, Patrick is a classic go-along-to-get-along guy, fully engaged by his family, his love of soccer and his job as a foreman at the critical Secunda oil refinery.
In fact, Patrick is shown having such a good time at a wedding that it's clear something bad is going to happen. Driving home, he is stopped at a police roadblock set up after a bombing and needlessly humiliated in front of his family.
Intercut with scenes of Patrick's life and work are glimpses of the public and private Col. Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a member of the Police Security Branch's anti-terrorism squad. The colonel, who considers his country and his family to be in immediate danger from the Moscow communists he is sure are running the African National Congress, is both proud of his job and quite good at it.
In movie terms it's inevitable that the paths of the these two men will cross, and that is what happens when a bomb goes off at the Secunda refinery and Patrick is arrested as the terrorist who did the deed.
"Catch a Fire" has taken pains to show that Patrick is innocent and also to reveal the glitch in his personal life that compromises his alibi. The colonel, a specialist in mind games who treats suspects like lab animals to be manipulated, is sure he's got his man and acts accordingly.
Robbins does as well as anyone could playing the equivalent of the sympathetic Nazi, but despite obvious attempts to humanize him, the colonel's emotional range as a man firmly on the wrong side of history is finally too narrow to allow for a fully realized character.
Derek Luke, on the other hand, best known for his Independent Spirit Award-winning lead performance in "Antwone Fisher," brings a maturity, gravity and even fury to his richest role to date.
It is difficult to say whether it was intentional or not, but to see how the techniques of state-sanctioned torture turn this innocent into a revolutionary activist surely has a message for those in power today.
Adding this to Forest Whitaker's marvelous performance as Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," fall 2006 has turned into a season of African American actors doing great work in African roles. We should all be grateful it has.
'Catch a Fire'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material involving torture and abuse, violence and brief language.
A Focus Features release. Director Phillip Noyce. Writer Shawn Slovo. Producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Anthony Minghella, Robyn Slovo. Cinematography Ron Fortunato, Garry Phillips. Editor Jill Bilcock.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. In general release.