Split the difference 

click to enlarge Tim Robbins (right) and Derek Luke scowl at apartheid.
  • Tim Robbins (right) and Derek Luke scowl at apartheid.

Catch a Fire (PG-13)

Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Kimball's Twin Peak, Tinseltown
In Phillip Noyce's apartheid drama, Catch a Fire, two wrongs do make a right, and therein lies the rub.

Based on a true story, the film stars Derek Luke as Patrick Chamusso, a model South African citizen with a steady job as an engineer at the local oil refinery. He has two adorable daughters, a beautiful wife named Precious (Bonnie Henna) and a soccer team full of young boys who idolize their coach. He's a pillar of the community but when he's wrongly accused of being a political terrorist responsible for a bombing, he sets out to avenge his injustice and enlists in a terrorist training camp.

Thus we encounter the double-edged sword Patrick faces: While he knows the apartheid regime is an evil one, he must overcome his doubts about using violence to combat it. And Catch a Fire, in proposing that violence is not the answer, must find a way to celebrate a man who thought, at least at one time, that it was the only answer.

Throughout his terrorist training, Patrick is consistently asked if he is ready to die for the group's cause of returning South Africa to its native citizens. At first, he is understandably cautious, given the once-prideful sentiment he had once felt for his home, refusing to join the chorus in crying out "Yes, Commander!" But once Patrick allows himself to become immersed in the ideals of his newfound allegiance, he embraces very different ideals, losing his moral compass and putting his family in further jeopardy.

Starkly contrasting Patrick's selfish decisions are the lengths to which Tim Robbins' anti-terrorist agent goes to protect his family from the chaos engulfing the country. To put everything in perspective, the audience is reminded that there are just 3 million whites in South Africa who hold all the power, governing the country's 25 million black citizens.

Because Catch a Fire is set in Africa and steeped in political turmoil, some critics will be tempted to compare the film to last year's Hotel Rwanda or The Constant Gardener, but it isn't as good as either mostly because it isn't quite sure which it wants to be. Screenwriter Shawn Slovo can't seem to decide between Gardener's shadowy political thrills and Rwanda's deep resonance. And despite Noyce's confident direction and some explosive performances, Catch a Fire fails to ignite because of its melodramatic, moralistic screenplay, which is often one step behind its audience before running off the rails altogether in its last act.

Luke, in particular, gives a fiery performance that deserves to be recognized at the end of the year, although his Oscar nod could end up going to Forest Whitaker for his equally intense turn in another African-politics-inspired film, The Last King of Scotland. Luke provides Patrick's continuous voiceover with a gentle humility that builds real empathy from the audience.

Robbins also flexes his muscle as the government-agent-with-a-conscience who actually believes he is serving the greater good. Noyce and cinematographers Ron Fortunato and Garry Phillips conjure some powerful visuals.

Unfortunately, the strengths of Catch a Fire overwhelm and further reveal the shortcomings of Slovo's pen. Honoring someone whose choices sometimes are less-than-honorable is challenging; and in this script, that challenge is too much to overcome.

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