An apartheid drama about the making of a righteous terrorist, Catch a Fire contains two inflammatory theses. One: Terrorism is not an absolute evil; it's an extra-military tactic that can be put to noble use. And two: Oppressive governments create terrorists by imprisoning and torturing innocent men. The folly—or perhaps the commercial capitulation—of the film is that it tamps down these fiery ideas with pretty, docile cinematography, shallow characterizations, and by-the-numbers action sequences that would put even the most inquisitive mind to rest. (A reviewer for the trade magazine Variety was so thoroughly duped that he couldn't imagine why a filmmaker would focus on apartheid "when there are so many new pressing and pertinent political and cultural issues.")

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Derek Luke steps seamlessly into the real-life role of Patrick Chamusso, a black South African yes man turned antiapartheid rebel who, as a documentary clip at the end of the film illustrates, later founded an orphanage (truth is always cheesier than fiction). His wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna), is pretty and "likes nice things"; his out-of-town mistress is a baby-laden footnote. When the oil refinery where Patrick works is attacked, he's arrested—and since his actual alibi involves spending the night in adulterous sin, he takes his beatings instead of fessing up.

Patrick pays for this cowardice with a radical political awakening in prison. Given the complex motivations at play, it's unfortunate that the script (by Shawn Slovo) doesn't go in for much psychology and wastes precious minutes halfway humanizing Patrick's Boer rival (Tim Robbins). Director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence) doesn't push back against the material, rushing himself and his actors until he hits the thriller that plays out through the final act. Maybe he feels more comfortable there: Action effectively masks ideology.