Mediocre ‘Fire’ in South Africa

Phillip Noyce’s ‘Catch a Fire’ is a hit-you-over-the-head political commentary about attaining freedom in the South Africa of the early 1980s and today. There is little depth to the message except that white South Africans are bad and black South Africans are good.
Based on a true story, ‘Fire’ tells the story of African National Congress member Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) and his villainous pursuer Nic Vos (Tim Robbins).
The film opens with Chamusso living a happy life as a soccer coach with a satisfied wife and family. His world is turned upside-down when he is mistakenly arrested by Vos for being part of the ANC, a national movement to take down the white South African government.
When released from prison Chamusso is no longer able to ignore the problems within South Africa and he joins the cause. This back story takes up a good deal of the film. The rest centers on Chamusso’s experiences and Vos’s quest to bring him down.
‘Fire’ does hint at some very intriguing relationships but doesn’t pursue them. For example, Robbins’ character appears to be soulless throughout the entirety of the film, but we see glimpses of his family life. Noyce fails to show any emotional connection between Vos and his family, something that may have made his character more approachable and understandable.
In one odd scene Vos dares to say that he believes his side of the South African political struggle will fail in the long run, yet the viewer is never given another taste of that emotion and regret. Instead, the audience is left to wonder who this man is. If he thinks his government is a lost cause, why is he so brutal to its adversaries?
Equally confusing and underdeveloped is the relationship between Chamusso and his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna). The film begins with the image of their perfect relationship, only to have us later discover, once Chamusso is being tortured, that he is involved in an affair and his marriage is actually on rocky ground.
The couple’s initial conflict could have made for an interesting subplot, but that information is dropped for the next two-thirds of the film until Precious emerges as a jealous mess wanting to destroy her husband.
A film about Chamusso’s conflicted relationship with his wife within the fight for freedom would have made for a better dynamic than the one offered between him and Vos. Viewers don’t see an emotional connection between the two characters. Chamusso hardly even fears the man, yet the film focuses on the importance of their relationship.
Once Chamusso is released from Vos’s custody, the movie turns into a cat-and-mouse chase, as seen in almost every thriller known to man. That dynamic made the film seem caught between being a political commentary and thriller, and it was not able to work as both.
The film did have many goods elements despite all the flaws in its development of relationships. Luke’s portrayal of Chamusso brings a likability that counters Robbins’ Vos very nicely. Through his character, viewers become emotionally invested in the ANC movement.
Scenes such as Chamusso’s training in the ANC army are made emotional and intense through the use of close-ups and chanting. Chanting is seen throughout the film as a way of capturing the spirit of the freedom fighters and residents of South Africa.
Noyce pays very close attention to South African culture, as seen through the previously mentioned chants and subtitles in more than one language. The intertwining of the languages adds a more realistic view of the culture and common people in the country often not seen in American films set in foreign locations.
Overall, the film is an interesting thriller and shows South African culture amazingly. But the plot lags in the dynamics between many of the characters. Better character development could have thrust this fairly decent film into the ranks of great political commentary.
Rating: 3/5