'Set It Off' slick, but gets greedy Review: As a statement on crime and injustice, film hits and runs. It's best as a female-bonding, bank-robbery job.

November 06, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Set It Off" never really gets down.

Some are calling it a "Girlz N the Hood," but it bears a closer resemblance to glitzy armed-robbery films -- "Heat" or "Asphalt Jungle" or even "Reservoir Dogs" -- than to John Singleton's gritty probe of urban pathology.

Where "Boyz N the Hood" cut deep, to bone, this one stays glibly on the surface. It's slick and routinely entertaining, if never quite persuasive. It chronicles how four black women, abused by "the system" (they claim), turn to violent crime to express themselves and find an identity. Whether they are true victims, justified in their righteous wrath, or simply paranoid self-justifiers whose greed overwhelms their good sense, I leave for you to decide, as does the movie: It clearly wants to have it both ways, exulting in the outlaw lifestyle while grimly approving the application of law and order.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, the four rob banks, a profession chosen when one of them, Frankie (Vivica A. Fox of "Independence Day"), a teller, is fired after she mishandles a robbery and comes under suspicion. It turns out she knows a good deal about banking operations and is therefore able to plan the jobs with considerable sophistication, which explains the gang's early successes.

But the director, F. Gary Gray, is more interested in the four women and how they relate to each other. As a variant of "Waiting to Exhale," the movie is at its best; it watches the four women, on the bottom rung of a number of ladders, bond together, build a cross-class and cross-sexual preference solidarity, and come to trust each other impressively in the riskiest of businesses.

Jada Pinkett plays a young woman who's worked like a dog to send her brother to college and is embittered when the cops kill him by accident. Queen Latifah comes on strong as a lesbian, with mannish body lingo and sexual tastes, who's both the bravest and the funniest of the four; she's also the stupidest and the one always pushing them toward destruction. Fox, the ex-bank employee turned almost overnight from nice girl to urban guerrilla, has the biggest stretch, and she manages, for the most part, to convince. Kimberly Elise plays a young woman who needs the cash to get her baby back from the state after the child is endangered in a workplace accident; she's the flightiest, the least mature, the most poignant.

Though it frequently depicts violence between the races, the movie is much less incendiary than it might be: It's not meant to rouse black passions against white people and works aggressively to show commonality between the races, as well as compassion. On the law enforcement side, the driving force is an LAPD robbery squad lieutenant played by John C. McGinty as something other than a racist head bopper who might have taken his licks at Rodney King. He has a great deal of courage, which drives him to insane lengths to halt bloodshed: I counted at least three times in the movie when he had clear shots at armed felons and chose instead to try and talk them out of further violence.

The movie falters twice: A long parody of "The Godfather" set in a boardroom is marginally funny but completely out of character; someone should have had the discipline to cut it. And a love affair between Pinkett and Buppie banker Blair Underwood is projected in the most sentimentalized of terms -- it's like a Breck hair commercial -- and becomes wearying after a bit.

'Set It Off'

Starring Jada Pinkett and Queen Latifah

Directed by F. Gary Gray

Released by New Line

Rated R (profanity, violence)

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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