Set It Off Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

Takashi Bufford stood up and looked out the sliding door that led to the balcony of the apartment. The apartment that belonged to her fellow aspiring screenwriter, Kate Lanier, still seated at the table amidst the discarded story ideas and empty cups of coffee that they had consumed. The crimson sun was about to dip underneath the flat expanse of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. They had been at this for hours, yet they had nothing to show for their efforts.

"We need something that sells," Takashi said to her friend.

"Unfortunately, films with strong feminist overtones do not do fare well in this male-centered-values society," Kate replied.

"Well, what genres sell then?"

"Bank-heist-gone-awry films. There's been tons of those lately," Kate suggested.

An expression of extreme contemplation came over Takashi's face as her mind began to make connections that she had not before. Kate looked up at her friend, puzzled at the deep thought that had suddenly consumed her. "What is it?" she asked.

"I got it! 'Reservoir Dogs' with sistas!" Takashi exclaimed.

Kate digested the suggestion and replied, "I got one better... 'Waiting to Exhale' with guns!"

Takashi scurried back to the kitchen table and pulled the laptop computer close and began to type. "I can see it now," she said, "four inner city women, working for minimum wages, decide to rob banks to break free from the persecution they face in their daily lives."

"Yes... it would be like one of those John Woo films with lots of double-fisted shoot-outs, slo-mo camera work, and internal moral conflict. Let's flesh out some of the characters."

"Okay, the first one we'll call Frankie-- she'll exemplify the fall from grace. I can see Vivica Fox, the one who played Will Smith's stripper girlfriend in 'Independence Day', in the role. She's working in a bank at the start of the story, and she sees one of her homeys, Darnell, in the bank. The next second, he's stickin' a cap-buster in her face and robbin' the joint with the boyz..."

"...and she doesn't follow proper robbery procedure, and innocent people die," Kate continued, "and then the final shoe drops... she gets fired because her boss thinks that she was in on it. And then she has to get a minimum wage job! She'll be the leader of the grrl gang, 'cause she has the foe-one-one on all the banks!"

"Okay, one down, three to go. Stony will be Frankie's best friend-- Jada Pinkett, who was in "The Nutty Professor" would be perfect. Her kid brother is going to UCLA, but can't afford the tuition. She puts aside her dignity to sleep with some scumbag to get the money for his tuition, but then he's killed by the police when they mistake him for Darnell."

"Wasn't that done already in 'Boyz 'n the Hood'?" Kate countered.

"Yes, it was... but we'll throw in a little twist and maybe no one will notice. She'll be the rational yet vulnerable one-- the one that the audience will identify with the most. She'll be the one torn between doing what's right and doing what's necessary to survive."

"We need a gay character. All movies and television shows have one these days. Cleo will be the action freak of the group and the lethal lesbian. She'll be the irrational one, spending all her loot on her fancy things for her girltoy to wear, and the first one to be arrested for her blatant disregard for her own actions."

"That's good," Takashi said, "Queen Latifah, that former rapper, would be perfect for that role. The last character would be Tisean, who we could probably get Kimberly Elise to play. She'll be the single mom, who would represent the face of desperation. She has to get the money otherwise the courts will make her child a ward of the state when they declare her unable to care for her child economically. She'll be timid at the beginning, unable to stand up for herself. Her character arc will have her gradually gain her confidence as they rob the banks."

"Now we need some kind of internal conflict plot device, to bring out the whole loyalty vs. duty debate."

"How about this: while they're casing a downtown bank as a possible robbery target, Stony meets Keith, this smooth brother who is the manager of the bank, played by somebody like Blair Underwood-- he's no Denzel, but he's close. Anyways, he doesn't know what she does and gradually, a relationship develops between the two and he shows her other possibilities in her life, as opposed to robbing banks. He could even say something philosophical, like 'Don't lose that friend over money... it's not worth it. Money you can replace, easy. Friends, real friends, you can't.'. Stony falls hard for Keith, but is ashamed of what she has become."

"And then all hell breaks loose when Stony's sistas decide to hit Keith's bank."

"Like that cool scene in that Roger Avary film 'Killing Zoe' when the prostitute that Zed was with the night before ends up as an employee in the bank that's being robbed by Zed's friends."

"Yeah, kind of like that. I mean, Keith finds out that he may have been used by Stony for the purposes of the bank robbery. Stony must choose between stopping the robbery or turning her back on Keith. Rich with potential dramatic possibilities."

"Cool... but of course, we mustn't forget the reason why we're writing it in the first place," Takashi said.

"Of course, we'll have to come up with extensive backgrounds of our four protagonists. Why they see robbing banks as their only way to survive, and how they become corrupted in their descent into darkness. I'd also like to add that we should be arty also. How about we have them wear masks when they hold up a bank?"

"You mean like the white faces in 'Dead Presidents'?"

"Yes... and how about for the final shoot-out, a bit of counterpoint. Slow gospel or classical music as the sistas are cornered by the LAPD and bullets are flying in slo-mo all over the screen. Classical John Woo touch, just like 'exploding Madonna' scene at the end of 'The Killer'."

"This is good stuff... I think the audience is going to like this, regardless of their racial or economic background. Hell, even Siskel & Ebert will probably give it 'two thumbs up'. And if not, if we can get a dope hip-hop soundtrack featuring the likes of En Vogue, I'm sure it'll still do well."

And for the rest of the night, the two women eagerly constructed the screenplay for what was to be known as "Set It Off".

P.S. Though it is derivative and cashes in on the bankrupt melodramatic conventions of the genre at times, it still is a great movie about the many faces of 'economic necessity'.

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