'Catch a Fire'

This seems like an odd moment to release a movie about South Africanapartheid. A full 15 years after the scourge ended, there are morepressing issues (AIDS and its orphans) facing the country. Of course, if"Catch a Fire" were a better movie, rather than a well-intentioned butemotionally flat personal history, such timing would be a moot point.

Director Phillip Noyce ("Rabbit-Proof Fence," "The Quiet American") hasre-created the bleak days when being black in South Africa was enough toget you arrested, tortured and, if you survived, shipped off to prisonon the infamous Robben Island, where you were at least in good company(most notably Nelson Mandela). If you were even suspected of being amember of the African National Congress (ANC), you could count on all ofthe above miseries befalling you at some point.

Patrick Chamusso, a real-life revolutionary played with stoic blandnessby Derek Luke, was just trying to get through his days, enjoy his familyand coach a soccer team. Living a studiously apolitical life with hiswife and two children in Secunda, east of Johannesburg, Chamusso hadjust become a foreman at the local oil refinery and was not anxious toreverse this ascension with any talk of unrest or rebellion.

Unforeseen events, including wrongful accusations of terrorism,transform him into a freedom fighter willing to give up his home and hisfamily to unravel the white majority rule. As he becomes increasinglyembedded in the group, his insider knowledge of the oil refinery provesinvaluable to ANC functionaries.

Chamusso's nemesis is anti-terrorism chief Nic Vos (Tim Robbins, in aone-note performance consisting primarily of clenched jaw and unblinkingeyes). During Chamusso's first incarceration, Vos tries everything inhis arsenal to break his prisoner--the good cop thing, the family manthing, the tough love thing. Throughout, Robbins maintains that singlefacial expression, which is an impressive physical feat but doesn't makefor a particularly compelling character.

Likewise, Luke, who has proven himself a solid, even first-rate actor("Antwone Fisher," "Friday Night Lights") is hemmed in by a role thattries to toe the line between saint and fallible human being, but, likeso many other unabashedly deferential biopics, errs on the side of theformer.

Noyce is an impressive director, and his lively pacing, combined withbuoyant traditional music and, fittingly, Bob Marley tunes, keepinterest levels reasonably high. It's just that the action, politicalintrigue and marital tensions (which prove critical as the storyunfolds) never quite coalesce into a compelling whole. The film, whichwas made with the full cooperation of the people portrayed (thescreenplay was penned by the daughter of an ANC leader) and was shot onlocation in South Africa and Mozambique, was clearly undertaken with thebest of intentions but winds up feeling pat and manipulative. Thehorrors of apartheid deserve a better treatment than this.


MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving torture and abuse,violence and brief language).

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