The third rebel-cry in Oz director Philip Noyce’s unconscious triptych tracking indigenous cultures in a white chokehold, Catch A Fire almost makes us forget that Noyce once marshalled sexy-time for Sharon Stone’s Sliver. Almost.
After earning his rep with efficient Hollywood thrillers Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger, Noyce has carved a new groove, fish-eyeing politics through an immersive human lens in conscientious thrillers Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American. And despite a 25-year cooling-off period for South Africa’s apartheid struggle, it’s easy to see the pull of a true story in which Patrick Chamusso is transformed from everyman into bomber.
Rewinding to 1980, we find a young Chamusso (Derek Luke) as an easy-going oil-refinery foreman more interested in football coaching than politics. But when the oil plant is blown up, he is wrongly accused, banged up and brutally tortured – as is his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna) – by police chief Colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins). Cue violent political awakening, as Chamusso leaves his family to train with the African National Congress (ANC) militants, strapping on explosives to finish the job he was wrongly accused of starting.
Soundtracked by Bob Marley and South Africa’s “freedom songs”, the snapshot of apartheid’s front line is textured and convincing. It should be. Scripter Shawn Slovo is the daughter of the ANC combat wing’s one-time leader and lost her mother to a letter-bomb a year after Chamusso was jailed for 10 years. Noyce racks up the parallels between Vos and Chamusso – two men working to protect their families – as he zeroes in on the personal cost of freedom.
Why, then, does the film smoulder without ever truly igniting? You can plot its trajectory with a compass, the jagged emotional spikes go missing, and when Chamusso gears up his solo guerrilla attack, Noyce slots all-too-briskly into thriller schematics – letting his subtle portraits of Chamusso and a raging South Africa slide out of focus. Playing a composite of two policemen who nearly killed Chamusso in prison, Robbins does some subtle heavy-lifting to humanise Vos’ vicious/sympathetic bad guy. But the real heat is stoked by Antwone Fisher star Derek Luke, channelling muted rage and pathos with surprising power. The real Chamusso, emerging as the credits unspool, had been desperate for Cuba Gooding Jr to get the role. Freedom fighters clearly don’t go to the cinema much.