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Mike Barnard

Published January 1st, 2005 | by Mike Barnard

Catch a Fire Review

Classification: 12A Director: Phillip Noyce Rating: 3.5/5

Fictional movies about rebels fighting tyrannical governments often favour action over investing time getting to know why the rebels fight, but those based on truth such as Catch a Fire normally put emotional engagement first. In this case, the story of Patrick Chamusso makes for a striking insight into South Africa’s Apartheid era in the 1980s. As an apolitical foreman at an oil refinery, Patrick (Luke) leads a settled life. He has a loving wife, Precious (Henna), and two young daughters who keep him motivated to do good in a country oppressed by a regime that victimises innocent South Africans due to the colour of their skin. When Patrick is falsely accused of being behind a terrorist bomb plot, he sees first hand the government’s dirty methods of extracting confessions from those who have done nothing wrong. Patrick is spurred into action as a freedom fighter seeking vengeance in this solid thriller.

Phillip Noyce, the director of standard mainstream Hollywood fare such as Sliver, Patriot Games and The Saint in the 1990s, has been taking on subtler, more political projects since 2000 with great success. Catch a Fire follows Oscar nominated The Quiet American and acclaimed Australian drama Rabbit Proof Fence as another study of disillusioned characters standing up against the unbalanced laws governing them. The action comes, but not until Noyce has made the harsh realities of Apartheid abundantly clear.

Patrick’s problems begin when he is absent from work the same day a terrorist bomb explodes at his oil refinery. His no-show arouses suspicion among the authorities, headed by the shrewd Nic Vos (Robbins). Although Vos appears to be a reasonable and friendly family man just trying to keep the peace, his methods for capturing the true culprits prove to be far from fair. Patrick pleads his rightful innocence leading to Vos’ men capturing and beating Precious to provoke him into giving a false confession. Vos finally realises he was telling the truth and sets him free, but Patrick’s faith in the justice system is scarred and he feels the need to seek vengeance. He heads to the African National Congress base in Mozambique to plot an even more devastating attack on the oil refinery.

The transformation of Patrick from a happy husband to a bitter freedom fighter is deftly handled by Noyce. The director hints at the friction Apartheid is causing, but the focus on Patrick’s family life gives the impression only those who deserve to be punished are carted off to prison. As a result, Catch a Fire might appear to be heading nowhere. However, when Vos does start to interfere, it quickly becomes apparent there is a dark centre to this true story. Patrick’s training and attempt to plant a bomb at the refinery spark bloodshed and similar one-man action as seen in Noyce’s Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, but the pay off comes in the closing moments when the real Patrick Chamusso reveals what he has done in the years since his release from prison. It becomes apparent Catch a Fire is a tribute to a man who has given generously back to a country that once forced him out, and helps push the few moments when Noyce seems to go off on a tangent into the background. Robbins is excellent as Vos, but the plaudits must surely go to Luke as his powerful portrayal of a man driven to stand up for his country makes Catch a Fire compelling viewing by the end.


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