There’s nothing particularly wrong with this South African biopic, the story of Patrick Chamusso (played by Derek Luke), a refinery worker and family man who turns freedom fighter after a vicious guardian of apartheid (Tim Robbins) tortures him and his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna.) The acting’s good, the images look crisp, and Robbins is a delicious villain. The story is gripping but unpleasantly so: when Patrick and Precious dance around the house to Bob Marley while their adorable girls study math and grandma grumbles in the corner, it’s obvious that none of it can last. Radicalized by the abuse Robbins dispenses with tight lips, Patrick visits ANC training camps in Mozambique and becomes what the white people in the movie call a terrorist. There are action-laden military raids and bombings, betrayal, soul searching, and finally some much-delayed redemption, and the film’s effects all work like they should–it’s hard not to get choked up at the final scenes, which then turn into a documentary coda showing the real-life Chamusso.

And still. Something about the workmanlike effectiveness of Philip Noyce’s direction (he made Rabbit-Proof Fence and the underappreciated The Quiet American, along with a few Clancy adaptations) didn’t sit right with me. Perhaps movies like Paradise Now have raised the bar on showing the inner struggles of men who confuse caring for their families with setting bombs, or perhaps I was looking for a more direct acknowledgement that the movie presents us with a reversal of current attitudes about terrorists/freedom fighters. Robbins’ character displays a modicum of complexity, but not enough to allow us to see ourselves in him. Opens October 27.

Catch a Fire. Philip Noyce, 2006. ***

[tags]film, 3 stars, south africa, philip noyce, tim robbins, derek luke, terrorism, racism, apartheid[/tags]