American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
“Set It Off” is advertised as a thriller about four black womenwho rob banks. But it's a lot more than that. It creates a portrait of thelives of these women that's so observant and informed; it's like “Waiting toExhale” with a strong jolt of reality. The movie surprised and moved me: Iexpected a routine action picture and was amazed how much I started to careabout the characters.
Theaction sequences--the robberies, the close calls, the shootouts--are allwell-handled (this movie has the first chase scene I've seen in a long timethat I've cared about). But what makes the film special is the way it shows themotivations of its four women, whose lives are in economic crisis. It doesn'tjustify bank robbery, but it makes a convincing case for the mixture ofdesperation, impulsiveness and thrill-seeking that catapults its charactersfrom minimum-wage jobs to TV news bulletins.
Asthe film opens, Frankie (Vivica A. Fox) is a teller in a bank that's in theprocess of being robbed by a gang of armed men. She recognizes one of them fromher neighborhood: “Darnell! What are you doing?” Afterward, Frankie is grilledby the cops and bank authorities. “What's the proper procedure for dealing withthis situation?” asks a detective (John C. McGinley). She's fired. “The factthat you knew the perpetrator,” a bank executive coldly tells her, “doesn't sitwell with us.” These scenes are immediately believable. Although Frankie andDarnell come from the same milieu, their lives have taken completely differentpaths, until that day. Meanwhile, we meet Frankie's friends, including Stony(Jada Pinkett), who has a problem: Her kid brother has been accepted at UCLA,but didn't get a scholarship. This looks like a plot gimmick (will she robbanks to pay his tuition?) until the screenplay, by Kate Lanier and TakashiBufford, provides a convincing, realistic twist.
Theother friends include Cleo (Queen Latifah), a tall, strong lesbian who delightsin buying gifts for her girl-toy, and Tisean (Kimberly Elise), who has a youngchild and is struggling to raise him as a single mother. They work for ajanitorial service, and that's where Frankie ends up, too; being fired has costher the references she needs for bank employment.