Catch a Fire fits in well with a recent string of handsomely shot international political thrillers, such as The Quiet American, also directed by Phillip Noyce, and The Constant Gardener. Toss in apartheid and the timely topic of newly radicalized terrorism, and Catch a Fire should have been a surefire Oscar contender. But it fell into relative obscurity because it never quite does what the title suggests -- it never really ignites. Since Noyce has proven quite adept at this type of film, and Derek Luke delivers a smoldering performance in the lead role, the film's lack of oomph may be traceable to its screenwriter. Shawn Slovo, the daughter of South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo, writes for the second time about members of her own family, after 1988's A World Apart. But her story stumbles into an anticlimax after a wrenching first two acts; she seems to tell it more as historical document than suspenseful narrative. Tim Robbins' Nic Vos suffers from a lack of specificity that feels related. Robbins takes pains to create a morally complex character, rather than a one-dimensional monster, but this choice muddies Vos into something intangible and dramatically lightweight. As a result, the cruel tactics he endorses are crucially underplayed, depriving them of emotional definition. But the gifts of Noyce and Luke do give the film occasional resonance. Noyce, along with a team of mostly undistinguished cinematographers, establishes a real sense of mood and foreboding around these oil refineries, which encroach menacingly on the shanty villages around them. The precise production design extends to Luke, whose authentic appearance seems to have helped him discover an exciting new range and depth. Despite these strengths, Catch a Fire is that most puzzling of underachievers -- it has an unidentifiable missing piece that keeps it from being great.
by Derek Armstrong review