Give Phillip Noyce credit: This clunky but rousing political thriller is a far cry from the Tom Clancy commie-baiters he made his reputation with. Drawn from the experiences of Patrick Chamusso (Luke), a line-toeing South African refinery foreman radicalized in the 1980s by his arrest and torture, Catch a Fire succeeds on its unlikely—albeit factual—action-movie accoutrements and timely, daring reversal of audience sympathies (not unlike what’s happening in this season’s Battlestar Galactica, only without the spaceships). Chamusso squares off against cop Nic Vos (Robbins), a paranoid monster as undone by his need for “security” as Patrick is by his magnanimous philandering, and their years-long conflict frames a fascinating portrait of an oppressive system rotting from within.
Catch a Fire is overearnest and cluttered with archival footage, but the screenplay by Shawn Slovo, daughter of ANC founding member Joe Slovo (whom she shows in the film gleefully planning a bombing), harbors surprising subtlety to which Noyce largely does justice. Its blending of the personal and political is particularly graceful, and the story’s parallels with a certain U.S.-occupied country are forceful and apt. (Opens Fri; Click here for venues.) — Mark Holcomb