"Set It Off" is pulp with a purpose, a heist film with more than guns and ammo on its mind. Like the characters it presents, this film ends up with dreams it can't deliver on, but just having the desire to do something different makes it a project worth paying attention to.
Conceived as a kind of "Thelma & Louise" times two, with four African American women turning to bank robbery as the only way to solve their problems and get satisfaction from a hostile system, "Set It Off" is strongest at its core, the relationship between its heroines.
Played by Jada Pinkett ("The Nutty Professor"), rapper Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox ("Independence Day") and newcomer Kimberly Elise, these characters are always convincing as four lifelong friends from the mean streets of Los Angeles.
Their relationship has the kind of believability the rest of the film does not manage, and the bond between them is often all there is to carry us through the minefield of genre contrivances that are the obstacles to "Set It Off's" being taken seriously.
Because a quartet of female bank robbers is not the usual thing, screenwriters Kate Lanier and Takashi Bufford have ended up overdoing it when constructing the reasons for the women to turn to crime. The basic tack is to take the things each person cares about most and have them threatened or destroyed by the rules of an unfeeling society.
Stony (Pinkett) is devoted to her younger brother and determined to get him through college. Frankie (Fox) has worked hard to get a good job at a downtown bank and wants to rise through the ranks. Tisean (Elise) thinks only of her baby son. Only Cleo (Latifah), a rowdy lesbian who lives largely to party, needs little excuse to search for some extra cash.
The plan to take on banks starts half-seriously, with the women reacting to a local robbery with a joking "if those crackheads could rob a bank, we can." But once their lives have been seriously disarranged, they start to think of it as "just taking away from the system that's screwing us anyway." Except they don't say screwing.
"Set It Off" picks up steam once the robberies begin in earnest. Director F. Gary Gray, whose last film was the small-scale comedy "Friday," probably relished the opportunity to work on flashy action stunts like crashing a Suburban through the window of a target bank.
"Set It Off" also has a pleasant but predictable romantic interlude as Stony catches the eye of a Harvard-educated "buppie" bank executive at one of the branches she's casing. Suavely played by Blair Underwood, this guy is not only the soul of politeness and sensitivity, he even cooks.
Though he is obviously talented, Gray is also 26 years old, and "Set It Off" is characterized by the youthful director tendency to be overambitious, to try to squeeze every possible movie moment into one finite film.
He can't resist, for instance, shoehorning in what turns out to be a quite amusing comic parody of "The Godfather," in which the four women sit around a big conference table, call one another names like "Cleo-menza" and discuss in Marlon Brando-type Italian accents what their plan of attack will be.
One of "Set It Off's" least convincing aspects is the dogged police pursuit that hunts them down as the women consider the inevitable last big job. Though the film is finally a prisoner of its genre conventions and its reliance on coincidence, we've come to care enough about this quartet that we do wonder, as we should, whether there will be a way out for any of them, and what the price of that might be.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong graphic violence, pervasive language, some sex and drug use. Times guidelines: explosive bank robberies and bloody shootouts.
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'Set It Off'
Jada Pinkett: Stony
Queen Latifah: Cleo
Vivica A. Fox: Frankie
Kimberly Elise: Tisean
John C. McGinley: Detective Strode
Blair Underwood: Keith
A Peak production, released by New Line Cinema. Director F. Gary Gray. Producers Dale Pollock & Oren Koules. Executive producers Mary Parent, F. Gary Gray. Screenplay Kate Lanier and Takashi Bufford, story by Takashi Bufford. Cinematographer Marc Reshovksy. Editor John Carter. Costumes Sylvia Vega Vasquez. Music Christopher Young. Production design Robb Wilson King. Set decorator Lance Lombardo. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
* In general release throughout Southern California.