I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Set It Off

tn_setitoffLong before he directed the new biopic STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, F. Gary Gray was already linked to members of N.W.A. He’d directed the video for the Ice Cube classic “It Was a Good Day” (1992), and later the action-movie-inspired “Natural Born Killaz” by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube (from the soundtrack to MURDER WAS THE CASE). When Gray started in features it was with Cube, who wrote, produced and starred in FRIDAY. And he also did the video for Dre’s “Keep Their Heads Ringin” from that soundtrack.

So in ’97, when he did his first action movie, he cast Dre in a small role as Black Sam, an underworld figure who provides guns for the protagonists, an all female crew of bank robbers.

Hear me out on this, but I do not consider N.W.A to be super respectful of women. Their songs talked endlessly about the bitches and/or hoes. FRIDAY also did some of that, in arguably a more playful way. The men are all doofuses, but Nia Long and Regina King aren’t, so you can’t take it completely seriously. But there’s a whole lot of humor about the women they do or don’t want to get laid by, and one hilariously has as her theme song “Hoochie Mama” by 2 Live Crew. “Big booty hoes – up wit it!”

So with that in mind it’s pretty cool that Gray’s second movie has an entirely female POV.
SET IT OFF is the story of four women who grew up together in a rough L.A. neighborhood and then, after a series of injustices, decide to rob banks together. It starts with Frankie (Vivica A. Fox, MERCENARIES), a bank teller who is working when her bank gets robbed and shot up by four thieves led by Darnell (the rapper WC, who less than a month earlier had released the album by his supergroup Westside Connection with Mack 10 and Ice Cube), a guy she knows from the neighborhood. The police cast suspicion on her for knowing one of the robbers, so her boss fires her while she’s still traumatized and covered in other people’s blood. Real classy.

mp_setitoffThe repercussions also hit her friend Stoney (Jada Pinkett, not yet Smith), an orphan who works hard and in a low moment even prostitutes herself to try to put her brother Stevie (Chaz Lamar Shepard, THE TEMPTATIONS) through college. He’s a good kid but he also is friends with Darnell, who in a punk move worthy of Lester Nygaard (Fargo season 1) convinces the poor kid to get the same distinctive design shaved in his head that he had visible on camera when robbing the bank. So as Stevie’s leaving the police are raiding the place and they shoot him to death.

Frankie joins Stoney and their friends T.T. (introducing Kimberly Elise, later in BAIT) and Cleo (Queen Latifah) at a janitorial service, cleaning mansions. T.T. is struggling as a single mother, has to bring her kid to work one day, he gets in an accident and is taken away from her. She’s much more timid than the others but needs the money the most, because she has to be able to pay her bills before she can get her kid back.

Cleo’s the only one not facing some horrible crisis, but she’s the most ignorant of the bunch, a macho tough girl with priors for grand theft auto. When her friends start half-joking about robbing banks she thinks it’s a pretty good idea.

All four actresses are well showcased, each of them getting one or more big emotional scene. There’s way more crying and yelling than a male bank robber movie, but it’s not too much, I think it works. The opening, where Frankie’s attempt to work her way out of the neighborhood is crushed specifically because of her being from that neighborhood is especially powerful. The assholes stand there awkwardly as she unleashes on them, alternating between righteous scolding and wounded crying. “I haven’t done anything wrong. I can’t help who I know!” Later, when she says fuck it and does do something wrong you understand why.

But Stoney is kind of the main character. She’s sacrificed so much for the next generation to have an opportunity beyond dumping garbage and dusting banisters, only to have that hope cut off by a combination of neighborhood assholery and police error. The champagne that was meant to celebrate Stevie going to college ends up being the “gun” that the cops think he’s reaching for. So all bets are off. Meanwhile Stoney meets a nice man (Blair Underwood, KRUSH GROOVE) – while casing a bank, by the way – whose way of treating her well happens to emphasize the idea that money equals happiness.

What makes it all really enjoyable is a strong sense of sisterhood. They fight, they hug, they console each other, they laugh themselves to tears over a table of money. In one scene they sit at a huge table in a building they’re cleaning and discuss their plans in ridiculous Italian mobster accents and lingo. They have fun.

But the real highlight is Queen Latifah getting to play sort of the Bishop or O Dog, or at least the Doughboy, of the crew. She’s a belligerent, blunt-smoking shit-talker in a sweatshirt and cornrows. And you have to understand, Latifah had a very different image than that. She was known as one of the female MCs who could hang with the men, but not by imitating them. She was a strong, powerful type of feminine, known for her African style hats and jewelry, and for carrying herself in a regal manner to go with her name. She was considered a member of the Native Tongues, like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, so she represented the “positive” side of rap. In HOUSE PARTY 2, remember, she played the roommate who pushed women’s studies and Afrocentrism. On the sitcom Living Single she played a fashionable magazine editor. Admittedly she had a little tougher image on her most recent album at that time, Black Reign, but even on there she was singing about “U.N.I.T.Y.” and shit.

To me she’ll always be this lady rapping about feminism while dressed as some kind of African military ruler:

But in this movie she’s drinking 40s, grimacing and busting open car doors with a file. I never would’ve thought she’d be so good playing this type of character. I believe her as somebody who does some stupid shit and then you forgive her because she’s your friend.

Also, not for nothing, Cleo is a lesbian, with a skinny girlfriend (Samantha MacLachlan) often hanging off of her not getting much dialogue, like an underdeveloped girlfriend that a dude in a movie would have. In 1996, especially in a black movie, that was pretty ballsy.

Luckily, unlike Tupac, Latifah didn’t decide to keep acting tough after playing the role. Her activities since then have included a jazz album, a day time talk show and an Oscar nomination. Her biggest crime has probly been BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE or TAXI or something.

This is clearly a movie angry about the way the system can fail poor neighborhoods, and specifically black people. But it’s interesting, and maybe a mistake, how much of the system the movie doesn’t indict. Not only is the deck not stacked as heavily in favor of anti-heroism as in, say, FALLING DOWN, but some of it reads as rose-tinted to me. The death of Stevie is actually an innocent mistake, not police brutality or overzealousness. They had a pretty good reason to think that he was their guy and that he was reaching for a gun. Darnell is actually more guilty than they are, having purposely set Stevie up with that haircut, in my opinion. That’s an interesting choice only four years after the riots, to absolve the LAPD of responsibility in this one.

But what’s more out there is the media coverage and how compassionate it is. When one of our bank robbers gets gunned down on TV the ONN anchor says solemnly, “We’ve just had… a horrible moment here. This is our greatest fear as for what would happen today. This is the most… tragic culmination of the day’s events.” He’s talkin like the president just got assassinated or the Challenger blew up. I just can’t buy an anchor having this much sympathy for a bank robber, or expecting his audience to. It’s as if he knows we’ve been watching their whole story from their perspective and that they’re the good guys.

Good ol’ John C. McGinley (ON DEADY GROUND, SURVIVING THE GAME, POINT BREAK) plays Detective Strode, the one coming after them. He seems like a great choice for an antagonist, a guy who’s on the right side of the law but the wrong side of not being a huge asshole, so we can root against him. You would think. Actually no, he turns out to be more than that.

(J.D. trigger warning next paragraph.)

It starts at the accidental shooting of Stevie. Strode cries out “Nooo!!” He immediately figures out they killed an innocent person, and he sheds tears over it. This seems laughable at first. We’ve had, what, around ten high profile, heavily debated police killings of unarmed black men in the past year or two. Have you ever, one single time, seen a police officer – even an unrelated one in an op-ed or news interview or something – acknowledging one of these as a tragic mistake, like when Al Powell accidentally shot the kid with the toy gun? I bet there are police who know that, I hope there are. But at least publicly they will all say the police were always justified and the dead person caused the problem and there is no reason for guilt or self reflection of any kind and if you think there is you’re a militant or criminal thug or anti-police liberal extremist like me and how dare you even briefly contemplate the possibility that a system that repeatedly executes people for petty or non-existent crimes should be reconsidered in case maybe there’s a way to protect human life and justice and the American way and all that pansy liberal shit.

So you see Strode actually crying in front of people, like he knows they’ve made a terrible mistake, and you think “whuh? I don’t know about this.” But what’s interesting about the character is when Stoney arrives and gets in his face, yelling that he killed her brother, he goes into tough shit mode again. He just stands there chewing his toothpick.

As the story continues he starts to slowly let down the macho veneer. When he finally catches up to them, comes gun-to-gun with them robbing a bank, he doesn’t just start shooting. He calls them by name, talks to them. He tries to convince them to give up instead of get killed. He acknowledges the hard times they’ve had, even his own part in the death of Stoney’s brother. But it’s impossible. They’re doomed. As close as Strode comes to talking them down, some dipshit security guard starts popping off and fucks the whole thing up. I mean, he sets it off.

After two of these messy stand-offs that don’t end the way he would like, Strode looks up and sees Stoney on a bus, literally on her way to Mexico. (And let’s forget about how weird it is that police were willing to shoot Cleo when she was standing in front of a bus full of old tourists, and that they don’t seem nearly horrified or bullet-ridden enough.) He sees her but he just stares. The guy we met at the beginning of the movie would’ve said “There she is!” But after what he’s seen, and what he’s helped cause, in that moment he decides it’s not worth it. He doesn’t say anything. He lets her go.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? SET IT OFF franchise. Stoney and Strode, the fugitive and the cop, reunited and reluctantly teamed, like Brian and Dom in FAST AND FURIOUS. I guess it would be called SET OFF. Let’s see that.

Dre’s first real movie role is pretty small. He has a tear drop tattoo to imply a long criminal history. He’s some kind of bigshot, but he’s a tangental part of these crimes, just doing a favor for an old neighborhood friend. He’s pretty good in his first scene, a little stiff in his second, but not that much is required of him. Mostly just a presence, which he has. Later he played kind of a similar role in TRAINING DAY, and was in THE WASH, which was not that good but he did co-star with Snoop, so it’s his biggest movie role. Since then he’s only done a couple cameos and Dr. Pepper commercials. Maybe he’s a perfectionist like he is in the studio, he’s still working on that next acting performance.

To date Gray has only done 8 feature films, with FRIDAY and this being the obvious highlights. Since then I guess his best is THE ITALIAN JOB. We’ll see how he does with the biopic. Speaking of which, the two credited writers have since written celebrity biography TV movies: Takashi Bufford did THE TIGER WOODS STORY (1998) and Kate Lanier did CRAZYSEXYCOOL: THE TLC STORY (2013). And she had already done WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT. She later wrote THE MOD SQUAD, GLITTER and BEAUTY SHOP (starring Latifah, produced by Cube). Bufford did BOOTY CALL. (His previous credit was HOUSE PARTY 3.)

Anyway, I think SET IT OFF holds up. It does not make a convincing justification for robbing banks, if that’s what you’re looking for. But it does make a good case for why everyone deserves empathy. Life is hard, and people need respect. And Darnell is an asshole.

APPENDIX: “Natural Born Killaz” video directed by F. Gary Gray

Notes:

1. This is an incredible song with the most badass synthesizer sample outside of “4th Chamber” by GZA.
2. Can you spot the two DIE HARD 2 cast members?
3. Note that the iconic rapper cameo is similar to Hawkeye’s cameo in THOR. Somebody do a mashup.
4. At that time Dre and Cube were supposedly going to do an album together called Heltah Skeltah. Too bad that never happened.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, August 13th, 2015 at 11:11 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

27 Responses to “Set It Off”

  1. This is a hood classic. Everybody I know loves it I always felt it was just aight however the soundtrack was my shit. That En Vogue song helped me get a lot of girls into the mood back in my high school days. So thank you to the creators of this movie for allowing that song to be inspired into creation.

  2. Crushinator Jones

    August 13th, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    This is a good review, Vern, but I want to lodge a small protest – please don’t call out specific commenters in a review. Even if I were a frequent and well-known commenter with a weird hang-up I would want you to talk with me about it down here, in the mix, not in the review proper. Even as an inside joke.

    Broddie, I also got some female attention to that En Vogue song. I was in college though. Still, I’ll take it!

  3. “Have you ever, one single time, seen a police officer – even an unrelated one in an op-ed or news interview or something – acknowledging one of these as a tragic mistake?”

    Yes.

    I could direct you to the video of the cop breaking into tears after shooting and killing somebody, or to interviews with Boston’s Police Commissioner William Evans where he repeatedly cites numerous high-profile deaths at the hands of police as excessive use of force, or to interviews with the guy who had the job before him, Ed Davis, who, talking about Mike Brown and Darren Wilson, said, “I can’t imagine Wilson couldn’t have found another way to handle that situation”—

    But why bother? People’s minds are made up.

    I could also point out that unarmed does not mean harmless; that police are human beings who make terrible mistakes without being racists; and that just maybe a lot of these high-profile lethal-force incidents are being presented to the public in a highly sensationalized manner that isn’t completely accurate. But, would anybody listen?

    Just to be clear, I’m not a cop. I’m a writer, like Vern. But Vern may wanna try talking to actual cops sometime. Y’know, just a suggestion.

  4. Vern, I’m pretty sure the fact that it’s often on TV somewhere, The Negotiator is probably a much bigger highlight than Set it Off. It still holds up pretty well too even though the technology is dated.

  5. That was one of your more rational responses to this topic, JD, but you did manage to slip in a condescending quote like “y’know, just a suggestion,” so hey.

    But if William Evans can repeatedly cite numerous high-profile deaths at the hands of police as excessive use of force, then you should be able to agree there’s a problem. And you really don’t think race has anything to do with that problem?

    If Vern added an addendum under every review like this where he acknowledged “And by the way, not every single police officer has racist attitudes and there are some who wouldn’t repeatedly lie about the events leading up to a shooting” — would that satisfy you? Is that what you’re after?

  6. I zee zat J.D. iz a very good German.

    Genocide. J.D. The word is genocide. And we engage in it openly. Look at conviction and execution rates. You either have to accept that Black people are inherently more likely to commit crimes, or accept that we are living in the same system that exonerated Emmet Till’s lynching party.

    And even if we take the concept that Blacks are genetically inferior as a premise, considering the sentencing disparity between Blacks and Whites for identical crimes, you would still have to concede that the system is rigged.

    How do those boots taste?

  7. set it off is a superb film and I really appreciate the humanity afforded to all sides.

  8. Leathal-force incidents?

    You mean… Lynchings? Right? I think you mean lynchings.

  9. I was super tired when I read this review and my brain wasn’t working right anyway, thanks to the current heatwave over here, so I thought the “J.D. trigger warning” was a SCRUBS joke that I didn’t fully get. (Considering that you wrote it after talking about John C. McGinley.)

  10. Crushinator and JD – No offense meant by the trigger warning. I just wanted to acknowledge to JD that “yes, I know this part is gonna bother you, I have to write it anyway.” Sorry if it came off as disrespectful.

  11. The Negotiator is F. Gary Gray’s best film. Samuel L. Jackson vs. Kevin Spacey as Negotiator. J.T. Walsh third last performance (and as always as a great asshole), John Spencer, Ron Rifkin (two other actor who has a tendency to play assholes), David Morse and young looking Paul Giamatti. It also got Dean Norris as a SWAT guy. What is not to like. It’s an awesome film.

    I do find it interesting that the films opening theme is by Craig Armstrong from one of his albume, but the score is by Graeme Revelle.

  12. Ghost- I can not agree more. It is a great film based on great acting, not explosions or set pieces, just a few actors doing what they are doing best.

  13. The Original Paul

    August 15th, 2015 at 7:52 am

    Don’t know if I’d call THE NEGOTIATOR “great”, but I had a fun time with it. I forgot John Spencer was in it. My only problem with it is the usual ones with whodunnit films nowadays – you probably won’t work out whodunnit, but you probably will guess (I did). That aside, it’s a very entertaining flick.

    Haven’t seen SET IT OFF. I don’t know too much about the whole police abuses issue, but from what I’ve read I would say “race” is only tangenitally related to the problem. It seems like you guys have a bureucratic system over there that actively encourages an “us versus them” mentality in the very people who should be protecting “them”, and as a result anybody who is more obviously “different” is going to suffer. The race issue is a part of this, in that people of a different race are the easiest to label as “them”. I think the “racism” thing is a symptom, not the root cause.

    And while I don’t disagree that there are racists in the police force – as there are in many other aspects of life unfortunately – the problem seems to be more that a helluva lot of people have been given military-grade weapons and what’s effectively a mandate to use them with impunity, and then plonked down into a system and culture where anybody not part of their own immediate group is “the enemy”. That’s where it seems to me, a foreigner, that your problems lie. I could be way off-base (I’m going on what I’ve read – not that the same isn’t true for the majority of Americans who haven’t been affected by the abuse of police powers) but that’s my take on the situation, just as somebody who reads the International news and websites like this one.

  14. I only saw THE NEGOTIATOR once when it came out on VHS back in the day, and I remember finding it pretty tedious. Just a couple of old hams yelling at each other over the phone.

    One weird thing that stuck with me is that there was a character named “Neibuam” in it. I remember that meaningless factoid because they must have said his name a thousand times over the course of the movie. Neibaum this, Neibaum that. Like every other line. They said it so much that it started sounding weird to me, like when you repeat a common word until it starts all meaning. It got to be like nails on a chalkboard. I remember begging the movie to end just so I never had to hear that name ever again.

    But of course now I hear it in my head every time the movie comes up. Thanks a lot, whoever the fuck wrote that script. Maybe you could try to find a way to work that “Badger Badger Badger” song into your next screenplay.

    This is a strange thing to complain about but I swear it was a real problem.

  15. Having Sam Jackson and Kevin Spacey on the phone with each other is a pretty good time. Not automatically of course. They could have been reciting the phone book between them and it would have been awful. But the tension is there in the movie and that is what counts. Good character piece.

  16. You may be right, but I don’t even remember which one was the negotiator and which one was the hostage-taker. I just remember Neibaum.

  17. I like THE NEGOTIATOR. The one thing that drags it down, is a certain “surprise” twist, that is too easy to guess, because to make it work, the audience must believe that the good guy does a random, evil act, which we all know he wouldn’t do.

  18. You guys are impossible. But to be certain, I don´t even remember the twist. It´s been ten years since I´ve seen it, so my views are clouded by pre-determined dementia and old age. Wait, what did i just say? Did you say anything about THE NEGOTIATOR? I don´t even remember that movie.

  19. I don’t remember the twist either. But I’m pretty sure Neibaum was behind it.

  20. I remember the trailer for THE NEGOTIATOR better than the movie itself, on account of that cheesy bit at the end where Spacey announces, “Now you’re going to have to deal with both of us.” That’s not from the movie. They filmed it specifically for the trailer, so that audiences wouldn’t be shocked and alarmed when the two main characters eventually team up together.

  21. Okay, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER for THE NEGOTIATOR THE NEGOTIATOR THE NEGOTIATOR THE NEGOTIATOR! Normally I wouldn’t discuss it until we get a review, but since I don’t know when this is gonna be and I’m apparently the only one who remembers that thing:

    At one point Samuel L. Jackson kills a hostage in cold blood, but of course it later turns out that the “dead” hostage is alive and his unexpected survival plays an important part in Jackson’s plan. And the problem really is that it doesn’t make any sense from a narrative POV, because we as the audience know that the good guy, who tries to prove his innocence, wouldn’t just murder someone. So while he did it to fool the characters in the movie (and they have not many reasons to believe that he wouldn’t kill all of them), it’s all written and directed as if we should be fooled by it too.

  22. The Original Paul

    August 15th, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    CJ – I didn’t mind that so much, it just made what came afterwards a bit more predictable.

    (Yeah, predictability is still my biggest sin in this kind of a movie.)

    Still enjoyed THE NEGOTIATOR though. It’s a good watch.

  23. The Original Paul

    August 15th, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    Oh THAT. I thought you were referring to the bargain Sam L tried to make at the end of the movie.

    Yeah, I don’t think we were ever supposed to believe that that actually had happened? At least that was my impression?

  24. I’m with The Original Paul on this one. Watching BBC News, it appears that the problem is less racism based but more fear based with easy access to firearms.

    Out of curiosity, Vern, but have you read David Simon’s Homicide? If you haven’t check it out. It’s a magnificent account of police work in racially diverse city that honours the policemen that dedicate their lives to solving violent crimes, while pointing the flaws within the system.

  25. Fear of what, exactly?

    Do you (or The Original Paul) understand the concept of systemic racism?

  26. THE TOWN felt reeeeally, really similar to this movie to me. I like both, but I kept getting SET IT OFF vibes from it the whole time.

  27. The Original Paul

    September 1st, 2015 at 5:35 am

    JTS – I absolutely understand the concept, and don’t disagree that it’s at work here. The difference is I think it’s a symptom of the real problem, not the problem in and of itself. Again, I could be way off-base. I’m going purely on what I’ve read. I’m not American and can’t claim to have any first-hand experience of this problem (neither can most Americans, but they’re still the ones who have to live in the society where the problem occurs, whereas I’m not.)

    My perception is that if there wasn’t a system that actively encouraged divisions between groups, to the point of outright hostility, the situation would be very different. Systemic racism – as opposed to some nutcase who just hates anybody with different-coloured skin to him – is caused by a lot of things, many of them cultural – fear of the unknown, a sense of injustice, etc. If you don’t understand a group, it’s natural to be fearful about it. And how can police understand the communities they’re in when they’re not part of those communities any more, but divided from them by military-grade weapons and riot gear? The thing that struck me most about the news reports from Ferguson was that most of the police officers didn’t even see that there was a problem. To them this was a rabble that needed to be put down. There was zero empathy there, zero tolerance. And I don’t think this is because police officers are inherently worse than other people (although it might be the case that the job attracts a certain type of personality these days – I have no idea if that’s true or not, it’s just a supposition). I think it’s because they’ve been trained that way.

    f you have a system that promotes divisions like this, then yes, you’ll get systemic racism. That’s what I mean by it being a symptom, not the cause. Study after study has shown that the more people understand an external group, the less prejudices they have against that group. So if you have a system that actively discourages this “understanding” process… this is what happens.

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