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Review: “Set It Off” (1996)

“We need something to set it off with.”
~~Cleo Sims

Not too long ago, a friend who’s been searching fruitlessly for a job had something to say about his troubles: “Class, man. Can’t escape it.” What a whallop five words can have. Back in 1996, the word “recession” wasn’t terribly high on anyone’s list of worries. But class? High, middle or low, class tends to stick around … unless you make it go away. F. Gary Gray’s “Set It Off” is a vivid illustration of this cruel truth. The story of four friends struggling to pull themselves out of the L.A. projects, “Set It Off” is an intense, heartbreaking examination of how class restrictions drive people to drastic action.

Scriptwriter Takashi Bufford — who hammers a bit hard on the heroes/villains angle — provides background about these women, a rarity in most bank heist films since they tend to focus on the action. “Set It Off” has plenty of action and violence, including several tense standoffs and shootouts, but the film is deeper than that. Stony Newsom (Jada Pinkett Smith), Cleo Sims (Queen Latifah), Frankie Sutton (Vivica A. Fox) and T.T. Williams (Kimberly Elise) grew up in the same neighborhood and now face the same problems: not enough money, jobs or respect and too many obstacles. Frankie had a job at a local bank that she lost after reacting improperly to a hold-up. Cleo’s sick of working for her crude boss (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and living in a garage. In a horrendous misunderstanding, Stony’s innocent brother (Chaz Lamar Shepherd) is gunned down outside his apartment by LAPD Detective Strode (John C. McGinley). T.T., unable to afford sitters, takes her toddler son along on a house cleaning job and he accidentally swallows household cleaner. When Child Services takes him, it rips her in half. To this point, “Set It Off” plays like a study of breaking points. At the bottom, each woman finds hers.

And so the group starts to take Cleo’s idea to rob a bank seriously. This idea even looks to be a smart one, since Frankie has the intel and Cleo has the guts and the weapons hookup. Rushed and unplanned as their first heist is, they succeed. Then “Set It Off” abruptly transitions from a layered character study into a bloody action film that follows few conventions except the truest ones: success makes the robbers reckless; outsiders get involved and people get hurt; the cops are watching (McGinley strikes a nice balance between obstinance and humanity) even though the women don’t realize it. Heists have this tendency to unspool when cool is lost and desperation takes over. Given these women’s economic circumstances, though, is there any way to keep desperation out of the equation?

Perhaps not, but “Set It Off” stumbles upon a few ways to make an old story feel new and resonant and exhilarating. The script includes some very honest conversations among these four women about their economic realities and why the risk might be worthwhile. Stony doesn’t believe in stealing, but Cleo (this is considered Latifah’s breakout role for good reason) has a franker take. The way she sees it, they’re just taking back what they system has taken from them. She’s not wrong. There is a conviviality among Frankie, Stony, Cleo and T.T. that feels true; gone is the fake, B.S. Hollywood formality. Watch for a brief scene where the women play “Godfather” to discuss their robbery plans. It’s excellent comic relief; more than that, it speaks to how deep their connection runs. Each actress gives a fine performance, but Pinkett Smith and Latifah are marvelous. Pinkett Smith shows us how the raw pain of loss changes people, and Latifah lights up every scene with Cleo’s intensity. She’s on fire.

Certain failings threaten to hamper this refreshing friendship. Gray’s direction in the action scenes is subtle as an Uzi; he tries to make these women into unstoppable action heroes, not the human beings we’ve empathized with. There’s also a romance (Blair Underwood plays Stony’s well-to-do suitor) that is completely useless. Both are mistakes, but they aren’t unforgivable ones, mainly because “Set It Off” is one of the best movies about class division and female friendships made in a long, long time.

Grade: B+

4 Responses

  1. I love this movie… it’s no classic but fun none-the-less. It’s like the female Dead Presidents. Does Jada Pinkett bug anyone else though? She just bugs me… dunno!

    • Can’t say that I consider Jada Pinkett one of my favorite actresses, though in “Set It Off” she doesn’t rub me the wrong way. Actually, I think she’s one of the better characters.

  2. You’ve half convinced me to check this out. I guess as long as there are some good shootouts or standoffs I could probably add it to the list.

    If it gets a B+ around here then it can’t all be that bad.

    • I’m a woman who loves a good shootout and bloody violence, but the character development snuck up on me. It’s rare that I end up really caring about the main characters in a bank heist movie; here, I did.

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