Everyone thinks they're right. Even the worst despots have some sort of twisted rationale for their actions, or they wouldn't bother carrying them out. When actors play despicable characters, they have to commit themselves to getting inside the heads of people who repulse them. The problem with Tim Robbins' dreadful turn as a South African "anti-terrorist" official in Catch A Fire—and it was also a problem with his sniveling Bill Gates impersonation in Antitrust—is that he can't hide his distaste for his own character. Though the film doesn't intend for him to be a monster, Robbins projects monstrousness anyway, because he can't connect to the reasoning behind his character's viciousness, like the desire to restore order or protect his family. And in yet another self-congratulatory movie about the evils of apartheid, any shades of moral ambiguity are desperately needed.


Set in 1980, as the apartheid system was beginning to crumble, Catch A Fire shows how the tide turned in one man, an apolitical laborer who kept his head down until circumstances led him to actively revolt against his oppressors. The charismatic Derek Luke works as a foreman at an oil refinery; he prides himself as a hard worker and good provider for his wife (Bonnie Henna) and family. Though some of his radicalized peers consider him an "Uncle Tom" (a questionable designation for this time and place), he doesn't want to jeopardize what he already has. When members of the banned African National Congress bomb the refinery, chief investigator Robbins and his men detain Luke under the suspicion that he provided the terrorists access. After being tortured, detained, and abused—and later, after watching his wife suffer similar treatment—Luke crosses over to Mozambique and joins the ANC's military wing.

While there's some intrigue about Luke's whereabouts on the night of the bombing, Catch A Fire mostly hinges on his relationship with Robbins and how it awakens his slumbering conscience. A few scenes suggest that these men are merely fulfilling their roles on the opposite side of history; after all, they're both fighting for their way of life. But Robbins tips the balance with his one-dimensional performance, and the earnest script follows in kind, settling for the sort of paternalistic take on black power and dignity that has dogged virtually every film like this. Given that apartheid was abolished a decade ago, Hollywood's good intentions aren't to be confused with urgency or relevance.