'Catch a Fire' Breathes New Life into an Old Story

Derek Luke as Patrick Chamusso in 'Catch a Fire.' Credit: Focus Features.

Derek Luke as Patrick Chamusso in 'Catch a Fire.' Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption Focus Features

Catch a Fire sounds like an awfully familiar story. And, in some ways, it is. Movies on how South Africa suffered under apartheid, and the heroic efforts made to resist that repressive system, are hardly new. So it's tempting to write off this newest look at that era as too familiar and too late. That would be a mistake.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Stories about apartheid in South Africa, like stories about the holocaust can be so simultaneously disturbing and heartening, that they bring a built-in viewing interest with them.

Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan says this is the case with Catch a Fire.

KENNETH TURAN: Catch a Fire sounds like an awfully familiar story, and in some ways it is. Movies on how South Africa suffered under apartheid, and the heroic efforts made to resist that repressive system are hardly new. So it's tempting to ride off this newest look at that era as too familiar and too late. That would be a mistake. For though the story is way more than twice told - it's never been told by Derek Luke.

The young American actor gives such an intense, passionate performance as South African Patrick Chamusso, that he just about dares who not to be involved.

(Soundbite of movie Catch a Fire)

Mr. DEREK LUKE (Actor): (As Patrick Chamusso) You cannot contact anyone on the other side. That means no phone calls, no letters. You may never see your family again.

Mr. TIM ROBBINS (Actor): (As Nic Vos) Do you still want to go on?

Mr. DEREK LUKE (Actor): (As Patrick Chamusso) They have killed my friend, tortured my wife, for nothing. Yes, I want to go on.

TURAN: It's true that some elements of Patrick's story feel facile, even by the numbers. But despite the occasional bleep, when Luke's acting is joined to the confident direction of the veteran Australian Phillip Noyce, Catch a Fire does not fail to ignite. More than that this story - set in South Africa, a quarter of a century in the past - turns out to have pointed parallels to the world today.

(Soundbite of movie Catch a Fire)

Mr. TIM ROBBINS (Actor): (As Nic Vos) Where do you get the money for this nice car and that nice camera?

Mr. DEREK LUKE (Actor): (As Patrick Chamusso) Well boss, I work, I have a job. I'm a foreman, boss. I work at Secunda.

Mr. TIM ROBBINS (Actor): (As Nic Vos) (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language.

Unidentifed Man #3: Down. Down!

TURAN: The use of questionable interrogation techniques and how they can politicize innocence, and create opposition where none existed before, is very much a theme. Catch a Fire is set in 1980, when Patrick was a happily married husband and father, who gave the political situation in his country not so much as a second thought. His opposite number, a South African police colonel played by Tim Robbins, is consumed by his fears of political terrorism.

In movie terms, its inevitable that the paths of these two men will cross, and they do when the colonel becomes convinced that the apolitical Patrick is a committed terrorist. Derek Luke, best known for his award winning starring performance in Antoine Fisher, brings a previously unseen maturity, gravity, and even fury to this, his richest role to date.

When you add this to Forest Whitaker's marvelous performance as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, fall 2006 has turned into a season of African-American actors, doing great work in African roles. It's not clear why this has happened, but we should all be grateful it has.

MONTAGNE: The movie is Catch a Fire. Kenneth Turan is a film critic for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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