Tales of ordinary people overcoming an oppressive regime are nothing new in cinema, but of course we now live in a time when the terms terrorist and freedom fighter have never been more obfuscated by the agendas of various power players. The result is what were once simple morality stories have now become engendered with their own multitude of meanings depending upon not only the politics of the filmmakers and but each individual viewer themselves.
This year has seen projects from both the radical far sides of politics cover the topic of terrorism in their own way – the far left got the subversively bold but heavily stylised “V for Vendetta”, the far right got the slickly-produced but hopelessly inaccurate “The Path to 9/11” mini-series. Now comes “Catch a Fire”, a more mature, objective and middle ground take on the topic as seen set against the rise of apartheid in 1980’s South Africa.
Director Phillip Noyce is no stranger to the thriller genre, with work such as the critically acclaimed “Rabbit Proof Fence” and the brilliant “The Quiet American” to more conventional but no less compelling fare like “Patriot Games”, “Clear and Present Danger”, “Dead Calm” and “The Saint”. The helmer knows how to shoot movies in his sleep and always strives for a realism and grounded quality to his films but without the ego-stroking or showing off style of all too many directors. HIs films are topical but rarely preachy, and always treats the audience with a sense of intelligence by allowing them to come to their own conclusions.
That style applies to ‘Fire’ but what’s missing here is the story to fire us up. Patrick Chamusso’s life is a fascinating one but writer Shawn Slovo seems so intent on covering all the bases of the man’s life that the key moments of it, most notably the torture that changed his entire perspective, seem glossed over and so it never emotionally connects. His subsequent actions become less and less compelling and so by the rather choppy and rushed ending there’s little to no sense of closure or redemption despite the conventional script’s obvious attempts to steer the audience that way.
Chances to explore the issue of racism in South Africa at the time are for most part swept aside in favour of establishing an on the ground sense of swimming in the culture. Always feeling accurate to the place and the time, the film nevertheless over indulges in its attempts to bring atmosphere – most notably the overuse of native songs (subtitled no less) about oppression of the Afrikaans. In a relatively average length film it feels like 10-15 minutes is spent on singing when only five would be enough, and the subtitling of the lyrics actually somewhat take away from their natural rhythm and power.
Derek Luke delivers a superb performance as Chamusso and manages to bring a lot of extra weight to some scenes which could’ve easily been dismissed in the hands of other actors. Robbins doesn’t fare as well, stuck with the obvious antagonist character. Unfortunately the film kind of muddles its intentions with him – on the one hand establishing family and good quality traits to elicit sympathy, but on the other hand painting him into a somewhat sadistic monster.
Noyce’s skill behind-the-scenes show up with his crew. The locations look superb, the props and equipment all totally convincing and low-key, and the editing and cinematography strong and vibrant without being showy. When he charges up the few moments of suspense in the film, they work well but these little moments of suspense really go to highlight how lacking in energy and pathos the rest of the film is – not helped by the somewhat languished pace. There’s a welcome restraint in the way the film is topical, but keeps its politics firmly situation-specific and never becoming too pointed in its allegories to today’s political turmoil.
In the political thriller genre in which he has carved out his own niche, Noyce once again delivers a well-executed, personal and powerful tale. In spite of the good intentions though the film ultimately never quite resonates with you the way his past work has. It’s not that the story isn’t good, it’s just that it doesn’t match that level of depth, richness or emotional heft, whilst the subject matter can’t help but feel somewhat dated and almost cliche by now. It’s a strong and honourable movie, but at times its simplistic answers and lack of a concise and gripping narrative to pull you along has the unfortunate side effect of turning the whole endeavour into something a little preachy and almost dismissive. It’s a tale worth telling, but this rendition of it never sparks with a distinct fire of its own.