Aesthetically, Catch a Fire looks the same as most of Philip Noyce's recent work. The use of fire and light, often resulting in a very dark red and orange atmosphere, is still here. The political current is still strong, especially now because the setting is Africa while apartheid is in full swing. That being said, Catch a Fire also departs from Noyce's canon by marking the first time that much of the message and intrigue is right on the surface.
Derek Luke, in a much bigger role than he is accustomed to, plays Patrick Chamusso, a supervisor at a coal-to-oil refinery in Secunda, South Africa. He's not what you would expect from an African man under apartheid; he tells his mother to turn off the rebel radio and tells the workers under him (all black) to stop talking about the current state of affairs. After an attack at the oil refinery, Patrick is brought in with his friends for questioning by Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), the head of a local police syndicate. Vos, a family man, takes it too far when he brings in Chamusso's wife (Bonnie Mbuli) and beats her to get her to confess her husband's guilt. After this event, Chamusso joins up with a resistance (terrorist) group and begins to plot a huge blow to the South African economy.
Maybe the problem is that nothing really sticks out. Written with an obvious, tired pen by Shawn Slovo, Catch a Fire doesn't bring any particularly honest or brutal feelings to the table. The character of Vos, specifically, seems to have a fundamental flaw in its construction; as a family man, there's no real correlation between Vos' family and Chamusso's family, which he has torn asunder. Even so, we are asked to understand Vos because he's not quite hateful enough so that he seems cold-hearted; the act of terrorism that he thwarts actually seems like a heroic act. On the surface, it seems like a complex character, but the integral movements inside the character burn out way too quickly.
On the other hand, Luke's Chamusso has much more weight and is a more studied look at a flawed man. While Patrick seems like such a good husband, father, and coach (soccer), he also is having an affair that has yielded a child in another township. Luke rises to the challenges of these pitfalls, but Slovo's dialogue gets hammy and often reeks of trite pandering. Thankfully, Mbuli serves up grace as Patrick's conflicted wife and keeps their relationship as the film's one true strand of story.
Noyce doesn't particularly direct badly, but there is a genuine lack of excitement and provocation in his work here. The desolate atmosphere of loss and confusion from Rabbit-Proof Fence has been traded in for cheap thrills that don't explore racism's roots with even the slightest hint of discovery. If it was thrills the film was hoping for, he has seemingly lost all the sophistication and patience that made The Quiet American such an enrapturing experience. Here, the villains are clearly marked, but never with enough nuance or design to make them memorable, while the heroes are flawed but not to the point of challenging archetypes. But hey, at least it looks nice.
You aren't going to catch a fire with that old thing.