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Saturday, 25 November 2017

Retro Review: Set It Off (1996)

Set It Off
Cast: Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A.Fox, Kimberly Elise, John C. McGinley, Blair Underwood, Dr. Dre
Genre: Crime Action
Worldwide Box Office Gross: over $41 million

Plot: Desperation drives four inner-city women to bank robbery in Los Angeles, then they start mistrusting each other

'Set This One Off'

Dubbed a ''Thelma & Louise meets Waiting To Exhale'' heist movie, Set It Off is, in many ways, the female equivalent to the previous year's Dead Presidents, directed by the Hughes brothers, which I really thought was fantastic. &, if like me, you have seen that film, you'll probably understand why I make that distinction. The similarities in the plot, the circumstances and plight of the characters they find themselves in and turning to crime to fast- track their way to happiness and a way to survive in and to get out of the ghetto, only for this to be short-lived, couldn't be any more different. But it's the way this is executed that the film revels in and makes these movies a fascinating insight into hood culture that is more than just guns, ammo and crime. Set It Off trades underprivileged Black males for Black females.

Four African-American women who feel disenfranchised & marginalized in society, whilst trying to scrape a living fall victim and decide to rob a bank, donning masks ala Point Break - style & stealing millions of dollars. Each of them has a personal reason to exact revenge: Stony's brother, who was about to head off to UCLA, was mistaken for a criminal & is gunned down by cops, Frankie had been fired as a teller at a bank, after a guy she knows robbed it. Even though she wasn't directly involved in the armed robbery, T.T- real name TeShawn- is a single mother, who has mental health issues and whose son is taken in by social workers, Cleo is the butch and hard-nosed lesbian and ringleader, who has a record of previous convictions to her name. After their successful heist, they continue with their crime spree, whilst they are unaware that a cop is on their case.

The other nitpicks were the scenes where they rob the bank was slightly farcical and should have been grittier and without some silly background music & that the romance involving Jada Pinkett Smith and Blair Underwood's characters is thrown in without much thought and therefore isn't that big of a deal. 

Unlike Dead Presidents, I actually had empathy for the women protagonists/antagonists & it focuses more on their bond and closeness together as a foursome and the tone in this film is lighter and not always serious, as I'd had imagined. But as the film got better as it went on, the more compelling the story became. Set It Off was directed by F. Gary Gray, who also directed the comedy, Friday starring Ice Cube & Chris Tucker, the NWA biopic, Straight Outta Compton and the remake of The Italian Job. Performances- wise, Jada Pinkett Smith did far better here than her turn in The Nutty Professor, and there is an appearance by rapper Dr Dre. Scrubs's John C McGliney puts in an effective performance as the cop. In truth, the performances by the main three of Latifah, Pinkett-Smith, A.Fox, along with McGliney as Detective Strode are impressive, with the latter satisfying also, although Kimberley Elise was underutilised and thus, her role could have been meatier. Queen Latifah's career-launching effort is strong, purposeful, fiery and confident as the reckless Cleo, without overacting. Her performances in this film, Chicago and Living Out Loud still reign as the 'Queen's' finest.

Never has there been a Black urban movie with a predominately female lead cast that comes remotely close to Set It Off and with a surprising and intense last half- hour with twists and deaths involving different members of the group, it makes the film way more gratifying and exceptional. & whilst some would have wanted John Singleton or the Hughes brothers instead of Gray as director, as they might have delivered more of that grit and hard-hitting drama & less of the melodrama, I thought Gray did a first-rate job and the characters came across as believable enough & they came alive onscreen, even though the characterisations of Stony, Frankie, T.T. and Cleo should have been further delved into. The action sequences looked great though with that slick and professional touch going for them. 

Final Verdict:

Along with F Gary Gray's ballsy approach that doesn't cut corners, Set It Off deservedly and rightfully deserves its plaudits as one of the best African-American crime based heist movies alongside Dead Presidents. If you enjoyed that movie, you will enjoy this one too. & given the enormous success of Straight Outta Compton and this movie, there is just really no excuse for studios to place more faith on actresses and directors and writers of colour and ethnic minorities to bring forth those stories to the big screen. African American cinema over the last decade or so but for a few exceptions has been virtually stagnant, since the glory days of the 1990s.

Still, a firm favourite with Black audiences, Set It Off should also be regarded as a cult classic as well, amongst other cult films.

Slickly and well produced and is made all the more enthralling, due to the direction and is watchable and entertaining thanks to the leads and supporting cast members in the likes of John C McGinley, this is a compelling and at times nail-biting affair.

Set It Off is an absolute treat that is not to be missed.


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