Denzel Washington was in ‘Carbon Copy’, Tom Hanks was in ‘He Knows Your Alone’, Tom Cruise was in ‘Losin’ It’. And years from now if his performance in ‘Catch a Fire’ is any indication of the career that actor Derek Luke has in front of him, someone will someday write ‘Derek Luke was in ‘Biker Boyz’. In consecutive days I have seen two performances that I consider the best, and dare I say Oscar worthy performances I’ve seen a year that is quickly coming to a close. Joseph Fiennes as the schizophrenic homosexual lover to a fourteen year-old boy in ‘Running with Scissors’, a movie I despised by the way, and Derek Luke’s performance as ANC rebel / terrorist Patrick Chumusso in Phillip Noyce’s Apartheid Drama ‘Catch a Fire’.
As it is told, Patrick Chumusso is a simple man working as an oil foreman in oppressive, racist South Africa in the early 1980’s. His only concerns are his family and his job as he goes out of his away to avoid political confrontation. While Patrick was away coaching his town’s youth soccer team, a terrorist explosion rocks the plant at which he works, casting suspicion on Patrick as one of the perpetrators. In Apartheid era South Africa there is very little distinction between suspicion and guilt so Patrick is apprehended by anti-terrorist police colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) and tortured for weeks until a confession is finally forced out of him through truly heinous means. Despite this coerced confession, Vos recognizes the confession as worthless and rather than hang an innocent man, he decides to release him and continue his search for the actual terrorist. Not all rebels are born however, for some are made and Vos and his officers have only succeeded in creating a powerful weapon for the ANC.
‘Catch a Fire’ is exceptional, highlighted by some outstanding performances such as the aforementioned Luke who is seamlessly able to portray Chumusso as happy go lucky, then desperate, enraged then resolute. Now I know full well that he and Tim Robbins are not African but the fact that both are able pull of Afrikaner accents without the usual fade in and outs that we often see from American actors aping various accents was a minor achievement in itself. It would be remiss to exclude Tim Robbins who gives a fair and balanced portrayal of Nic Vos, not excusing his actions but presenting him as an actual human being capable of love, anger, hate, and principle and not just blanketing Vos as a the stereotypical naziesque lunatic seen in movies of this sort. His character was somewhat inconsistent however. He seems to have principles and at least pretends to have respect for his prisoners, but still has no problem in the killing of prisoners and torturing women and children that he knows to be guilty of nothing. Maybe after ‘Arlington Road’ and ‘War of the Worlds’ Robbins is sick of playing twisted one-dimensional wackos. Who knows. Bonnie Mbuli also delivers an outstanding performance Chumusso’s put upon wife Precious who justifiably doubts her husband’s loyalty to her and is forced to make some tragic decisions because of this doubt.
Noyce expertly handles the atmosphere of South Africa and film rarely misses a beat and finds a smooth consistent rhythm. If I had a problem with the film, which I otherwise found outstanding, the racist oppression displayed in the film comes off a bit as Apartheid lite. Probably because I’m fairly well versed in the subject of South African oppression and have South African friends who can tell you stories that would bring you tears, I never got the feeling that Apartheid was as damaging or as destructive as it actually was. Not that that Apartheid was presented as some kind of Roman holiday, it just felt like they lifted their foot off the pedal a bit. Maybe in part to maintain a PG-13 rating, and perhaps to keep the focus of the story more on Chumusso than Apartheid atrocities.
All that being said ‘Catch
a Fire’ is one of the better movies I’ve seen this year
telling an important story, though one told many times,
and also showcasing some of the best performance you’ll
see in a movie this year.