Set It Off (F. Gary Gray)

Rating: ** (out of ****)

I had high hopes for Set It Off, especially since I still feel a bit guilty about having skipped Waiting to Exhale, last year's sole Hollywood film about black women, due to generally tepid reviews and my disdain for Whitney Houston (no, I won't be rushing to see The Preacher's Wife anytime soon). But while the film is occasionally exciting -- it is, after all, a genre picture about bank robbers -- on the whole it's as dumb and forgettable as most action films featuring aging white dudes. The actors -- Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, and Kimberly Elise -- are outstanding, but they're encumbered by unnecessary motivational backstories; Hollywood characters must always be likable, even when they're robbing banks, so Set It Off isn't content simply to imply that social factors are at work in their decision -- each woman (with the sole exception of Latifah, who's just a badass, and all the more likable as a result) is a Good Citizen who is given a Very Good Reason to turn to crime during the first couple of reels. Another problem is that this film, like Ransom, frequently makes no sense whatsoever; Kimberly Elise, for example, needs the money because her infant son has been taken away from her by child-welfare authorities, due to her inability to provide for him...but does she expect that she can simply show the Powers That Be a wad of cash and solve the problem, without explaining where it came from? And a romantic subplot involving Pinkett and Blair Underwood is just plain silly; you can actually see the embarrassment radiating from them in waves in their scenes together. I still hope one day to see a terrific Hollywood film about African-American women, but I don't expect it to happen until African-American women are allowed behind the camera...which, at our current rate of progress, just might happen before my natural life expectancy is over in about 2040.