Catch a Fire

“Catch a Fire” tells a true story, and that might be its downfall. Not all true stories are created equal, after all. Some are more dazzling, more interesting or simply more cinematic than others. “Catch a Fire” deals with a theme ripe for filmic representation — South Africa’s system of apartheid — but the specific story it chooses is weak.

The year is 1980, and South Africa is a land divided. Blacks comprise a majority of the population yet have no political power and are relegated to a grossly inhumane level of second-class citizenry.

Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) has managed to rise above his circumstances, somewhat, and is a foreman at an oil refinery, one of the few blacks to achieve such a position. In his spare time he coaches a youth soccer team. He has a wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna), and two beautiful young daughters. No life is perfect in such an oppressive society, but Patrick’s is better than many.

Yet he has a secret: In another town, he has a lover by whom he also has a son. He is with them on the night that his oil refinery is attacked, apparently by the freedom-fighting militant wing of the African Nation Congress. A government detective named Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) fingers Patrick as a suspect, as he had access to the plant after hours and, as a black man, had a motive to lash out against the white-run government. Of course, when your society is intent on subjugating an entire race, you’re sort of GIVING them motive to fight back, aren’t you?

Patrick had nothing to do with the bombing, but since his alibi is his mistress and love child, he is hesitant to confess where he was when the explosion occurred. He is interrogated and tortured. Finally his wife, Precious, gets the same treatment. That’s Patrick’s breaking point, and he seeks out the ANC so he can join their movement. The accusations of terrorism have turned him into a terrorist.

Here’s the problem with all this: You know how some films have two heroes on opposite sides of the law? Think of Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in “The Fugitive” — both good men with equally defensible positions who just happen to be in opposition to each other. “Catch a Fire” is a perverse twist of that formula: We have two main characters on opposite sides of the law who are equally un-heroic. Neither Patrick nor Nic is especially noble or good, nor are either man’s motivations entirely pure.

Whom should we root for? Patrick, who’s fighting a corrupt system but only as a knee-jerk reaction to being treated unjustly, who leaves his wife and daughters behind so he can join a radical movement? Or Nic, whose persecution of Patrick as a potential terrorist was perfectly justified given the evidence, yet who is a racist cog in a racist system?

The film was written by Shawn Slovo, the daughter of anti-apartheid activists from back in the day, and directed by Phillip Noyce, who has made political thrillers both large (“Clear and Present Danger”) and small (“Rabbit-Proof Fence,” “The Quiet American”). Clearly we are meant to side exclusively with Patrick and consider Nic Vos a villain, but going solely by what the film shows us, I don’t see it as being that black-and-white (as it were). I see both men as ordinary, flawed characters, neither of them grand or outsize enough to warrant biopic treatment.

I will say this, though: Derek Luke’s performance as Patrick Chamusso is quite impressive. Luke is a New Jersey native whose prior work in middling films such as “Antwone Fisher” and “Glory Road” never suggested he was destined for anything particular great. Yet in “Catch a Fire,” he speaks with the dialect of a native South African and infuses Patrick with a fiery, combustible passion. I wish I could somehow cut his performance out of this mediocre film and paste it into a better, richer, more deserving one.

C+ (1 hr., 38 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, some fairly strong violence, brief non-sexual nudity.)