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Friday, October 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Catch a Fire": A fight against apartheid

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Catch a Fire," with Derek Luke, Tim Robbins, Bonnie Henna. Directed by Phillip Noyce, from a screenplay by Shawn Slovo. 101 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief violence, some language. Several theaters.

Apartheid dramas and thrillers were in vogue in the late '80s, which has led some to wonder if a well-crafted film such as "Catch a Fire" has any present-day relevance, given that apartheid is extinct, race relations in South Africa are much improved, and apartheid-prisoner-turned-president Nelson Mandela has achieved near sainthood as a national hero.

Relevant? Hello?!

"Catch a Fire" is about the political radicalization of an innocent citizen following torture and interrogation by agents of an overzealous government. You might as well call it "Ripped from the Headlines" for all its present-day relevance. That it also happens to be an intelligent and emotionally engrossing film may explain why Focus Features has given a surprisingly wide release to what is essentially an art-house thriller.

The factual story of "Catch a Fire" (also the title of a 1973 album by Bob Marley and the Wailers, whose music richly enhances the soundtrack) deserves to be seen for the potency of its subject matter and for the reliable appeal of Derek Luke, the "Antwone Fisher" star who improves with each passing role. Here he plays Patrick Chamusso, an upstanding South African who was wrongly accused of sabotaging the oil refinery where he worked in 1980. He then joined the MK, or guerrilla military wing of the African National Congress, after he was beaten and tortured by his accusers.

It's actually the torture of his wife, Precious (beautifully played by Bonnie Henna), that leads Patrick to abandon his family for training in Mozambique, to oppose a system that allowed the white minority to oppress more than 20 million blacks with Boer-sanctioned impunity. As Security Branch Col. Nic Vos, Tim Robbins is this film's symbol of apartheid in action. But as villains go, he's fascinatingly conflicted, devoted to his futile cause yet increasingly aware of his encroaching obsolescence.

Filmed on the actual locations where its events took place, "Catch a Fire" bristles with urgent authenticity, its political cat-and-mouse game capably handled by director Phillip Noyce, who applies the sensitivity of his acclaimed recent films ("Rabbit-Proof Fence," "The Quiet American") with the thriller expertise established in hits like "Dead Calm" and "Patriot Games." The film's third-act shift toward conventional sabotage-and-manhunt plotting may seem jarring, but you can hardly blame Noyce and screenwriter Shawn Slovo (whose father led the MK when Chamusso joined) for sticking to the facts.

Indeed, "Catch a Fire" offers a satisfying payoff by ending with endearing footage of Luke and the real Patrick Chamusso, and you sense a well-earned kinship between actor and hero (who now operates a South African orphanage) that's richly informed by the drama we've just witnessed.

It would be a mistake to draw parallels between Chamusso's righteous struggle and the ruthlessness of Middle Eastern terrorists, but it's obvious that "Catch of Fire" resonates in our current political climate. As long as there's oppression anywhere, well-told stories like this will always be relevant.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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