Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Set It Off (USA, 1996)

(Spoilers.) F. Gary Gary has said that the film was inspired in part by Luc Bresson's La Femme Nikita (1990 / trailer), in that when he saw Bresson's film he got interested in the idea of making a film that put women in what are traditionally male roles — in the case of Set It Off, that of bank robbers. More than anything else, however, the film is simply one of the many new black films that came out in the wake of New Jack City (1991 / trailer) that were basically updated, contemporary versions of the Blaxploitation genre. F. Gary Gary does it so well, however, that the film easily transcends the label and can be seen simply as an excellent crime thriller with a black, feminist twist. True, the motivations behind why the four hot young ladies decide to enter the life of crime achieve validation only through their being black (can't imagine any lily white Valley Girls suffering what they do), but as action packed and thrilling as Set It Off is, it lacks the cheap feeling of true exploitation.
Okay, there are flaws in the story and in the logic occasionally, but the film carries the viewer along so thoroughly that it takes a second or third viewing to pick them out — and then, the film is still so good, you don't really give a shit. The biggest flaws of the film all pop up the last third of the film, about the time the four decide to do their last big job and blow town. It just makes no sense that the four ladies, after so effectively disguising themselves with wigs the first couple of times, would resort to some idiotic see-through plastic masks that in no way hide their identity for their last robbery, even if they do think that the police are on to them and that time is running out. The tragic ending starts out realistically enough, the first death being especially touching because of all four bank robbers, Tisean (Kimberly Elise) had the least materialistic or revenge-driven motivation — she had simple, desperate need. The last couple of deaths are staged most dramatically, but also most unrealistically. A car encircled by cops is not the only thing that will get riddled with bullets if the encircling police let it loose; cross shooting would guarantee that a number of police would shoot themselves as well. And when Frankie (Vivica A. Fox) finally gets it, there is no fucking way in hell that a tour bus full of tourists bound for Mexico is going to trawl by slowly in front of the fleeing woman as she gets made into Swiss cheese; even if such a bus did get through whatever police blockades there might be, it too would be the recipient of numerous bullets. Unless the L.A. police have developed some new secret type of bullets that train in only on black, fleeing female bank robbers, the climactic shootouts defy reality in every way, even if they do make for some nice Hemingwayesque endings.
Of all the sub-plots, Stony's love affair with a black banker seems the least necessary, the nice yuppie serving little purpose other than to be the occasional voice of reason spewing forth wisdoms that are relatively easy to say if you happen to have a lot of money. (Interesting to note that even in 1996, it still seems to be the unstated law of the land in the USA that the woman never goes to bed with the guy until the third date.) Lastly, the sudden conversion of Detective Strode (John C. McGinley) at the film's end from a hardcore, dick-headed pig to an understanding, sympathetic cop (in the vein of the cop played by Harvey Keitel in Thelma & Louise [1991 / trailer]) is most unconvincing. It comes across less as a logically development in the story than that the filmmakers either suddenly lost the balls to keep the symbols of white authority and pressure nasty or were forced from higher above to soften the portrayal.
These flaws aside, from the opening bank robbery that ends up costing bank teller Frankie (Vivicia A. Fox) her job to the last scenes of the Stony (Jada Pinkett) escaping into Mexico, the film carries the viewer along lock, stock and barrel. Like the direction and the characterization, the acting in uniformly excellent, and the tragic aspects of the story never come across as maudlin, but rather as truly heartbreaking. It isn't hard to understand why the four women finally decide to fuck the system, for the system definitely has no intention of doing anything other than fuck them. And it does so, for the most part, all the way until the film's end.

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