Set it Off
Director: F. Gary Gray
Writers: Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier
Cast: Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise, John C. McGinley, Blair Underwood
From my perspective, Set It Off had all the potential to be a great movie, but unfortunately falls victim to bad melodrama and over the top histrionics. Too bad that an excellent cast and a premise brimming with intriguing possibilities cannot set anything of worth off.
After witnessing a brutal murder during a robbery at the bank where Lida 'Stony' Newsom (Jada Pinkett Smith) worked as a teller, the bank manager fires her because she knew one of the individuals involved. After suffering this indignity, Stony then goes to work for a janitorial service, alongside her friends, Cleo (Queen Latifah), Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), and T.T. (Kimberly Elise). After Frankie and T.T. suffer their own severe indignities, the four woman band together and decide to start robbing banks in order to fight back against the system that they perceive as unjust and oppressive.
When Henrik Ibsen wrote A Doll's House back in 1879, the ending of the play became controversial for the simple act of a woman defying her husband by slamming a door in his face. So shocking was this act of feminist bravado, that this became known "the door slam heard round the world". At the time of the late 20th century, things have changed a bit and movies about woman engaging in violent and criminal behaviour barely even raise an eyebrow. However, Set It Off bears a stronger resemblence, to Thelma and Louise, right down to the sympathetic detective chasing after the female outlaws. A line of dialogue even references the earlier Ridley Scott picture.
Watching Set It Off I could not help but mourn the fact that the talents of Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivicia A. Fox, Queen Latifah, and even John C. McGinley, are wasted on this project. All of them are capable of great work, but the script constantly lets them down. Scribes Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier do not know the meaning of subtlety and every scene unfortunately features an overdose of bad melodrama and over the top histronics. Characters are either underdeveloped or inconsistently written or both. John C. McGinley's Detective Strode is a good example of this as he goes from an aggressive bully at the beginning, to willing to risk his life to reduce the chance of harm to Frankie. Some might call this character development, I call it piss poor writing.
Neeedless to say, this is the sort of movie where heroic extras will needlessly throw themselves into harms way so those with speaking parts can go on living, at least a little bit longer. Also, when Frankie's nephew is killed she screams and cries over his body and then pretty much forgets about him for the rest of the movie. No one even bothered to hold a funeral or at least mention that there was one. Frankie doesn't even seem all that affected by his death later. For me, this kind of lazy writing functions as an iceberg capable of sinking even the most Titanic cast.
The characters of course, are pretty much all types. The only exception being the lesbian Cleo, although that is mainly due to fact that Queen Latifah's larger than life performance. Cleo is by far the most interesting character of the bunch and is notable for the fact that she is regularly shown being affectionate to her partner, but no fuss is otherwise raised regarding Cleo's sexuality. At least on this one, the filmmakers got it right.
Aside from all of that, there is not much worth talking about. The action is pretty much perfunctory and standard order for the 90's. Some of the deaths at the end do manage to tug at the heartstrings, but otherwise, this is an emotionally inert movie, rather then the explosive thrill ride hinted at by the title.
Those in the target audience - woman, particularly African American woman - may better relate to the main characters and therefore find Set It Off to be a worthwhile and enjoyable movie. In my opinion though, Gray's movie is not be worth seeking out, although there is no reason to set off for someplace else if the opportunity to view it arises.
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