Australian-born director Phillip Noyce has followed a fascinating career arc. In his home country, in addition to a handful of early films unseen by me, he turned out the amazing, crackerjack thriller, Dead Calm (1989), the story of three people and two boats in the open water. (Orson Welles started filming the same story as The Deep but shut down production when one of his lead actors died.) The film earned Noyce an invitation to Hollywood, where he received the usual treatment that most foreigners get: He was assigned the unwanted garbage that the locals wouldn't touch. He spent a decade churning out stuff like the Rutger Hauer flick Blind Fury (1989), Patriot Games (1992), Sliver (1993), Clear and Present Danger (1994), (God help us) The Saint (1997) and The Bone Collector (1999).
Fed up -- as well he should have been -- he re-invented himself as an international filmmaker with a social conscience; in 2002, he unleashed a one-two whammy that impressed nearly every critic on the planet (except that the Oscars didn't bite -- behind the times, as usual). The Quiet American adapts Graham Greene's novel about a love triangle in Saigon and does not shy away from questioning patriotism or depicting "ugly American" characters. The even better Rabbit-Proof Fence tells the story of three Aboriginal girls in the 1930s who escape a life of domestic slavery and make their way across the outback by following the title fence. It too deals directly with politics and spins an interesting villain out of A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), a man who truly believes he's doing mankind a service by separating these girls from their families.
Noyce's new film Catch a Fire also includes such a villain in Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a white secret policeman whose job is to capture terrorists and make the minority white population feel safe. His latest target is Patrick Chamusso (a commanding Derek Luke), an innocent man who keeps a low profile in the early 1980s, apartheid-era of South Africa. Patrick works a terrible job in an oil refinery and coaches a football (soccer) team. He lives with his daughters and his wife, Precious (Bonnie Mbuli), in a small, dusty village. He does everything right, except one: When his championship team goes on the road for an away game, he takes time out to see his secret mistress, with whom he has a son.
Unfortunately, the night he spends with her is also the same night that terrorists decide to try to blow up the refinery. Since Patrick was meant to be on duty that night, and since he won't give up his alibi, he's the prime suspect. Vos picks him up and questions him. Robbins, speaking with a practiced Afrikaans accent, plays Vos as stern, logical and unwavering, but also humanist. He gets upset when his men torture Patrick, and when Patrick confesses (out of fear for his wife), Vos is the one who puts the facts together and lets Patrick go.
Humiliated, and tired of his passive approach to life, Patrick decides to actually join the terrorists he has been accused of belonging to. To do so requires leaving his wife and family, without explaining where he's going or even saying goodbye. (Only Patrick's mother -- who listens to forbidden radio stations -- understands.)
What follows is training sequences and another planned attack on the refinery, with Vos hot on the trail. Noyce manages to capture the desperation and danger of this situation with vicious indoctrination, backed with the chants: "Are you ready to die?" His highly effective skill can take this dangerously preachy material and make it lively. The major problem with Catch a Fire is the screenplay by Shawn Slovo. A veteran scribe with A World Apart (1988) and Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001) to her credit, Slovo was the daughter of anti-apartheid activists, and her father Joe Slovo (who died in 1995) knew the real Patrick Chamusso. Perhaps she's too close to the material, or tries too hard to place Patrick on a pedestal, but it's surprising how soft and mundane her script is. Rather than embracing chaos, she succumbs to a safe, controlled Hollywood layout; certain story elements are all too familiar (when Vos teaches his daughter to fire a gun, we know how it will pay off), and it glosses over the most emotionally potent ideas (we never get the full effect of Patrick leaving his family).
What Catch a Fire really needed was a loose, improvised feel, similar to The Battle of Algiers (1965), and Noyce goes a long way in providing that in spite of the short-sighted material. He's clearly in his element here, and re-energized from his long, soul-sucking stay in Hollywood. But he has taken away some Hollywood habits as well; he gives us a Schindler's List-like coda with the real Patrick. Patrick's life of terrorism is behind him, and he's practically an angel now, taking care of orphans! It's a bit much, but the real fellow at least provides a brief taste of feeling missing from the fictional version.