Set It Off May 13, 2017
Kudos to F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off (1996) for proving that an action movie doesn’t have to solely consist of mindless, full-throttle thrills. It’s a film circling around bank robbers and their sinful excursions, sure. But it’s less about the highs which arise from a morally bankrupt adventure and more about the social injustices which can turn an everyman into a criminal. Its commentaries sting. And, unfortunately, feel more timely than ever.
The film is headlined by a dynamic quartet of women: Stoney (Jada Pinkett), Cleo (Queen Latifah), Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), and T.T. (Kimberly Elise, in her theatrical debut), all dwellers of the Los Angeles slums. Janitors who work for a thankless cleaning company, they’ve been disadvantaged their entire lives – and, as the film opens, are nearing their breaking points.
Stoney’s brother, despite college prospects, has been victimized by the racially charged brutality of the police. Cleo dreams of wedding her lady love (Natalie Desselle) but worries about her fiscal ability to play house. Frankie has just been fired from her bank teller job, not because of shoddy work but because she so happened to have grown up with the man who robs the place one sunny afternoon. Child services have deemed T.T. an unfit mother due to her flagging financial situation.
All are desperate to make a change in their lives. And, being so angry at a government which seems thirsty to sabotage their efforts to better their existences, they figure there’s nothing wrong with avoiding the high road like the plague. Seeing that the neighbor who emptied Frankie’s bank made off with an abominable amount of cash, a psychological light bulb flickers on. In a matter of days, this group of friends transforms from struggling working women to intelligent career criminals, robbing banks with ruthless aspiration. But the cops are only a few steps behind them.
All is told with enough humor and enough social consciousness to allow Set It Off to run by as an action thriller with edge. Its actresses have a convincing rapport, persuading us that they have, somehow, been best friends for decades. They can transition between shared laughter to a heart to heart with a sharp snap. The screenplay, by Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier, is pumped with as many authentic thrills as immensely affecting representations of class and racial inequalities in modern-day America.
To make a social drama with blockbusting attributes is no easy feat. One wrong move and you might as well call yourself shallow. So one can only look at the movie’s director, F. Gary Gray, with colossal awe: this is difficult material to seamlessly capture, and yet he conjoins the intermingling genres without missing a beat. He additionally highlights the varying skillsets of his actresses and ensures that they get plenty opportunity to flesh out the stirring characterizations written out for them.
It runs slightly long at a little over two hours – though its climax spectacularly adjoins the heartfelt with the high octane thrill – but Set It Off walks alone, deserving of a legacy underlined by something other than mere cult appreciation. Fact is is that an action thriller is rarely as smart or as moving as this one so unquestionably is. Or as exquisitely cast. B+