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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 6/1/00

Set It Off
1996 (1999) - New Line

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Set it Off Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A-/C

Specs and Features

123 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.78:1), 16x9 enhanced, full-frame (1.33:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (no layer switch), Snapper case packaging, theatrical trailer, music video for Ray J's Let It Go, cast and crew biographies and filmographies, film-themed menu screens, scene access (24 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 and 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

I remember rolling my eyes during the theatrical trailer for Set It Off. It seemed that Hollywood was once again trying to do a modern day updating of the old Bonnie and Clyde formula that has worked so well for them in the past. After all, Hollywood can bank on moviegoers flooding theaters to see a glamorized, brainless shoot-em-up. A serious, thoughtful drama about four desperate women driven to robbing banks to survive is a different story and a harder sell. The truth is, Set It Off is a social drama dressed up as an action picture. There is a lot of action in the movie - good, heart-pounding action - but it's a by-product of (and is secondary to) the drama.

At the start of the story is Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), who is unjustly fired from her job as a bank teller after an armed hold-up leaves several employees dead. In need of money, she reluctantly takes a job alongside her friends as a janitor in a downtown LA high-rise. Stony (Jada Pinkett) is dead set on getting her younger brother into college. She wants so badly for him to get into college that she makes an extreme personal sacrifice to make money to put toward his tuition. But in a reckless attempt by the police to find a suspect in the bank robbery, Stoney's brother is murdered, and her world falls apart.

Helpless and despondent, the two decide with no remorse to join two of their friends, Cleo (Queen Latifah) and Tisean (Kimberly Elise), in robbing banks. After all, what harm could come from taking from the same system that robbed them of their futures? Frankie's knowledge of bank procedure makes it that much easier and they pull the robbery off without a hitch. After scoring a small fortune their first time out, they get a little more confident and a little cockier, taking on bigger, more lucrative banks. The quicker they get the money, the faster they can get out of Los Angeles - a city they both despise and love.

What worked for me in Set It Off are the performances. The acting is first-rate and brought a certain level of believability to the material. Without strong performances, the story could have fallen flat on its face. Queen Latifah is starting to really make her mark in films, and she is good here as the ebullient, trigger-happy Cleo. It's a shame that she followed this up with the abysmally bad Sphere. Vivica A. Fox and Jada Pinkett are effective as well, but the real find in this picture is Kimberly Elise. As single mother Tisean, she is both heartbreaking and touching as she tries to cope with losing her child to the system.

The one thing that doesn't work is an implausible love story between Stony and a rich banker (played by Blair Underwood) that needlessly clouds the story and keeps it from developing. Nothing would have been lost from the movie had they left this part on the cutting room floor. Also, Cleo's confrontation with the police near the end of the story becomes somewhat of a parody and is drawn out just a few critical minutes too long. Those complaints aside, Set It Off is still a commanding film that is well worth viewing.

On DVD, Set It Off is a fine looking film. A clean, defect-free print was used for the transfer to DVD. There is some occasional color bleed and a few instances of digital noise in some of the darker scenes, but otherwise this is a good-looking anamorphic picture with a lot of detail. In the film's original theatrical release, it was matted at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, as is the case with the laserdisc release. The packaging states that the film is now shown "preserving the 1.78:1 aspect ratio as specified by the director." There are two English language sound mixes - a Dolby 2.0 surround mix and a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The 5.1 mix, of course, is much more dynamic and encompassing than the 2.0 mix. Dialogue levels are always clear and accurate without ever being drowned out by effects or music. There's a fair amount of gunfire in Set It Off, and both front and rear surrounds are put to good use to enhance the soundfield during these scenes. My only quibble with the audio is with the bass levels. For all the movie's action scenes, the bass doesn't seem to be as deep and active as it should be.

The extras are pretty standard. You get the theatrical trailer (anamorphically enhanced and in Dolby Digital 5.1), some fairly extensive cast and crew biographies and a music video. En Vogue had a big hit with Don't Let Go (Love), one of the songs featured on the soundtrack and the song used to promote the movie. You'd think that would be the video New Line would include. Instead they chose (presumably for contractual reasons) the little known Let It Go by Ray J. Set It Off is one of their DVD catalogue releases and was not a huge hit in theaters, so the lack of extensive extras is more than excusable.

Director F. Gary Gray showed that he has staying power with Set It Off. His first film, the Ice Cube and Chris Tucker cult hit Friday, put him on the map. But this one really showcases his dramatic talents and knack for framing action films. He developed that talent even further by following this film up with the savvy hit The Negotiator. In any case, home theater enthusiasts will find this DVD a great way to experience a solid, action-oriented drama.

Dan Kelly
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