Film review: Set It Off

Published: Saturday, Nov. 9 1996 12:00 a.m. MST

Cross "Waiting to Exhale" with both "Dead Presidents" and "Thelma & Louise," and you get "Set it Off."

Sadly, you must also mix in a lesson learned from "Multiplicity" — the more times a clone is copied, the dumber it gets.

An exploitation-caper flick that pretends to be thoughtful and socially significant, "Set it Off" is the story of four lifelong friends who live in the Los Angeles projects and yearn to get out.

Jada Pinkett ("The Nutty Professor") has the nominal lead role; her cohorts in crime are rap artist/actress Queen Latifah ("My Life"), Vivica A. Fox ("Independence Day") and newcomer Kimberly Elise.

The film opens with bank teller Frankie (Fox) being approached by a guy she knows from the projects, who has come with robbery in mind. People die, Frankie is splattered with blood — and then she's fired because she was acquainted with the robber.

So Frankie goes to work for a janitorial service, joining her three best friends — tough-minded, take-charge Stoney (Pinkett), who just wants to get her brother into college; hard-drinking, marijuana-smoking Cleo (Latifah), a lesbian carjacker; and nervous, ill-at-ease single mother Tisean (Elise), who worries about what to do with her young son when she's working.

Frankie's righteous indignation fuels the anger of the other three, especially when soap opera subplots kick in — Stoney's innocent brother is killed by police, Tisean's son is taken away by social services, etc. And it isn't long before they decide that robbing a bank might solve their problems.

Their "perfect crime" is justifiable, since banks have insurance. "We're just taking away from the system that's (messing) us all anyway," says Frankie.

Screenwriters Kate Lanier ("What's Love Got to Do With It?") and Takashi Bufford ("House Party 3") give us hackneyed situations and underdeveloped characters, while director F. Gary Gray ("Friday") makes the bank-robbing scenes quite exciting. But he also paints a very ugly view of humanity — from cruel white-collar employers to sadistic blue-collar workers to trigger-happy cops.

Of course, it's obvious from the start that our heroines are headed for tragedy, but there's a "happy" ending tacked on anyway. Worse, in the middle of the film is a weird "Godfather" parody.

Everything here is wildly over the top, including the performances. These actresses have been quite good elsewhere, but here they are mostly overwrought — especially Latifah, who overplays her character outrageously.

And the film apparently subscribes to the notion that if you mention one of your inspirations, it won't seem so much like a ripoff. "OK, Louise," says Stoney at one point, "you take Thelma over there and rob another bank!" (There's also so much dope-smoking, the movie might have been called "Waiting to Inhale.")

"Set it Off" is rated R for considerable violence, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity and drugs.

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