Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: F Gary Gray
Stars: Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica A Fox, Kimberly Elise, John C. McGinley
Running Time: 120 minutes.
It’s unusual to find a tough, contemporary crime thriller in which the main protagonists are Afro-American women, which is probably why local film distributors have not known how to handle or effectively market Set It Off. This surprisingly moral, yet exciting and proficiently staged action movie breaks some of the unwritten rules of the crime thriller genre.
Set It Off begins with a bank robbery that goes horribly wrong. Although initially a simple crime it has deeper repercussions as it sends out ripples into the larger community. Eventually the robbery and its tragic aftermath has a devastating impact on four women who live in the same decaying housing project, and a number of other people who are unwittingly drawn into a vortex of violence. After the bank where she works is robbed by a black youth who lives in the same housing project as her, Frankie (Vivica A Fox, from Independence Day) loses her job when the manager and the cops suspects her of being in collusion. Angry at the harsh treatment meted out by “the system” she soon forges a bond with Stony (Jada Pinkett, from the recent remake of The Nutty Professor) whose younger brother is shot by police after they mistake him for the bank robber. These two women become united when they feel that the system has betrayed them and failed them, and decide to exact a fitting vengeance by robbing a bank.
Frankie is the cool planner, drawing upon her knowledge of the workings of banks, while Stony is initially fuelled by cold rage and thirst for revenge. The aggressive lesbian and mechanic Cleo (Queen Latifah) is also drawn into this small group of tyro criminals, along with Tisean (a wonderful debut performance from newcomer Kimberly Elise), a single mother who desperately needs money to keep the child welfare agencies off her back. They take out their frustrations by robbing a smaller suburban bank, but once they get the taste for crime and a fix for the adrenaline rush that accompanies it, they decide to rob another, and another, until they over reach themselves with fatal consequences.
With its brutal and effective violence and slick car chases, Set It Off marks a radical change of pace for F Gary Gray, a former director of rock videos, whose last film was the laid back and hilarious black satire Friday. Gray handles the superb action sequences proficiently, and he manages to bring some tension to the exciting climax. Gray also draws a quartet of strong performances from his ensemble cast. Pinkett delivers a strong performance as the moral voice of the group, urging caution and restraint, while the brassy and bold Latifah provides the necessary anger and aggression. Elise has the more emotionally fragile character but she too is engaging and touchingly vulnerable. John C McGinley (Point Break, etc) is also good as Strode, the tough cop who eventually shows a streak of humanity when he tries to prevent bloodshed and needless deaths while trying to stop the crime wave.
Gray is also careful to avoid any hints of the cheap “blaxploitation” that characterised most of the black action movies of the ’70’s. The characters are well drawn and their different and desperate motivations are succinctly established, as is the patent inequality of the social strata that leads to these women feeling neglected, cheated and ignored. This is an action thriller done with some intelligence and compassion for the plight of its central characters, and ultimately their race and sex becomes irrelevant to the overall ambition or aims of the film. However, Set It Off also develops a strong moral core as it looks at how the relationship between the four women is temporarily changed by sudden greed and the need for money. The film effectively makes the point that money and friendship make for incompatible bedfellows, although Gray never permits the worthy moral to slow down the flow of the action.