Putting a refreshing spin on the traditional hero's biopic, Catch a Fire tells the true story of one South African freedom fighter with an eye for flaws and complexity that has been sorely lacking in many recent American movie bios (sorry, Ron Howard).

American actor Derek Luke plays Patrick Chamusso, an oil refinery worker living on the outskirts of Johannesburg with a wife and two daughters. It is 1980, and though the South African freedom movement has reached new levels of strength and violence, Patrick prefers instead to coach youth soccer and enjoy his relative wealth.

On the other side of town is Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a white police officer who, as his wife puts it, keeps the country safe so that his daughters can enjoy a life of privilege. Vos recognizes that, in a country with three million whites and over 30 million blacks, apartheid cannot last; still, Vos uses his power and a quiet ruthlessness to maintain the status quo.

Vos and Patrick meet when Patrick is falsely accused of blowing up his refinery as part of the African National Congress (ANC), the rebel group founded by Nelson Mandela. Vos tortures Patrick and his wife to force a confession, and though both are eventually released, Patrick emerges a changed man. He abandons his family to join the ANC in Mozambique, and with Vos hot on his trail, he becomes a soldier and plans to return home and blow up the refinery once and for all.

Though a stellar supporting cast adds vitality and authenticity to the story, pitch-perfect performances from Robbins and Luke give the film its complexity. Robbins, perhaps best known as the innocent prisoner Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, cannot help but infuse even the stoniest glare with a sense of hidden warmth; his Vos is both a cruel tormentor and a conflicted man caught on the wrong side of a losing battle. Luke, too, never allows Patrick to become simply a saint; the character's mistakes and flaws only contribute to a portrait of a man who was a hero despite his own ordinary humanity.

Smart choices by director Philip Noyce enhance the performances, from the quick crosscutting between scenes to the frequent continued use of close-ups--overacting is practically impossible with the camera pushed in so close. The story continues in Patrick's village even when he is away, and by following multiple characters who will all be affected by Patrick's act of terrorism, the film gives us a far richer story than just the cat-and-mouse chase between Patrick and Vos. Noyce realized, rightly, that it takes more than one hero to tell the story of the end of apartheid--it takes a village.

Catch a Fire manages to be a morality tale and a character study as well as a moving story, an accomplishment even more impressive given how many easy outs the film could have taken. Without going into overtly political speeches, the film takes apartheid beyond black-vs.-white to explore its deep cultural resonance, helping explain how a system of such blatant discrimination could survive so far into the modern era. With its terrific performances and elegant filmmaking, Catch a Fire is what biopics and issue-driven films could be if they had the guts to go beyond the easy answers.