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HTF Blu-ray Review: SET IT OFF, Director's Cut
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Posted September 21 2009 - 08:26 AM
Set It Off, Director’s Cut (Blu-ray)
Studio: Warner (New Line)
Film Length: 124 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.4:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: English Dolby TrueHD 7.1; English DD 5.1 EX
Subtitles: English SDH; French; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Theatrical Release Date: Nov. 6, 1996
Blu-ray Release Date: Sept. 8, 2009
Set It Off was directly inspired by Thelma and Louise, and although it isn’t nearly as accomplished as Ridley Scott’s 1991 film, it retains a kind of raw power, as the four protagonists experience their lives spinning further and further out of control. Much of the film’s energy no doubt derives from the passion of the main players, both in front of the camera and behind, who saw in the New Line-generated script a chance to do something no one had ever tried before.
The film opens with Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), who works as a teller at an L.A. bank. On this particular day, the bank is robbed while she’s on duty, and she recognizes one of the robbers as someone she knew growing up in the projects. When the robbery turns violent, Frankie gets blamed by the head police investigator, Det. Strode (John C. McGinley, playing a competent version of the temperamental lawman he played a few years earlier in Point Break). Then she gets fired for her acquaintance with a perpetrator.
Frankie’s experience follows the pattern for that of her three friends from childhood, none of whom can get a break. T.T. (Kimberly Elise, in her first film) is a single mom struggling to make a living at a janitorial job. When she can’t afford child care, she has to bring her son with her, and one night the toddler swallows a cleaning product and is rushed to the hospital. Social Services takes him away until T.T. can prove herself a fit mother.
Stony (Jada Pinkett, before the “Smith”) works on the same janitor crew, and she has been solely responsible for herself and her brother, Stevie, since their parents were killed in a car crash. Her whole life is focused on getting Stevie through college, and she will do anything – anything – to make that happen. When her plans are thwarted in a one-two punch that could be dismissed as contrived if similar events weren’t routinely reported on the news, Stony’s world collapses.
Cleo (Queen Latifah) also works for the same janitorial service, which is run by the unsavory Luther (Thom Byrd). She already has a record for stealing cars as a teen. Of the four, she has the fewest hopes and the least invested in tomorrow. Both the character and the performance recall Ice Cube’s Doughboy in Boyz n the Hood, which is a compliment. Cleo also happens to be an “out” lesbian, a fact that her friends accept but barely tolerate. (Watch how the other three acknowledge Cleo’s girlfriend, but turn away whenever she and Cleo embrace.)
These stories sound like the raw material for several Lifetime specials, and Set It Off, like Thelma and Louise, does share some of that narrative DNA. But when Frankie, still angry at her former employer, tells her friends how easy it would be to rob a bank, the film becomes a heist flick with serious edge and big action sequences. These four women are desperate enough to become bank robbers, but their determination isn’t matched by their skill. They know bank operations thanks to Frankie, and cars thanks to Cleo, but they don’t know much else. And that’s going to cost them dearly.
Matters become especially complicated for Stony when she unexpectedly meets Mr. Right in the person of Keith Weston (Blair Underwood, typecast even then), an ambitious, Harvard-educated businessman who wants nothing more than to take Stony away from whatever her former life has been. This presents Stony with the classic dilemma of new love vs. old loyalty. To Pinkett’s credit, she conveys Stony’s struggle with genuine conviction, even though there’s never any doubt which one Stony will choose.
In the retrospective documentary on this disc, director F. Gary Gray acknowledges that Set It Off has flaws. I would say they’re mostly in the first hour of the film, whereas the second hour, with its accelerating pace, action set pieces and growing sense of danger, develops a seductive rhythm that’s hard to resist. Part of the reason is that director Gray, who would go on to make The Negotiator and The Italian Job remake, has an intuitive feel for filming action but doesn’t have a similar instinct for how to stage emotional drama, especially with multiple characters (and since the budget was low and the shooting schedule short, he didn’t have the luxury of experimenting). But a larger part of the reason is simply script – character drama is hard to write. The writers of Set It Off had to establish four different lead characters in a relatively short time, and they often fell back on exposition shortcuts and cliches that have not aged well, even though the talented cast is giving their all. If nothing else, their script highlights how brilliantly original Callie Khouri’s script for Thelma and Louise was, and how richly she deserved her screenplay Oscar.
One character sequence stands out, though, and I don’t know whether it was in the script or improvised on the set. After a serious falling out, the four women settle their differences by playing out a variation of the peace conference scene from the first Godfather film, complete with puffed out cheeks and low, accented voices. It’s absurd, and indeed T.T. (or was it Kimberly Elise breaking character?) cracks up throughout. And yet . . . it’s also one of the slyest comments imaginable on the ubiquitous presence of Scarface in “gangsta” culture (New Jack City, anyone?), as well as a thoroughly believable game that long-time friends might play as a way of breaking the tension and smoothing over a rift. If more of the script had been that daring, Set It Off could have been a classic.
NOTE: The version on this Blu-ray is listed as the Director’s Cut and is two minutes longer than the released version. I was unable to find any listing as to what was added, and since the film still carries an R rating, it does not appear to be a case of restoring material that had to be deleted for the MPAA. If I learn anything further, this review will be updated.
However one may feel about the film, it’s hard to find fault with the transfer. Warner has used an exceptionally clean source (or cleaned up a bad one) for this Blu-ray, and the transfer has been done with care. Black levels, colors and detail are very good throughout. If any noise reduction has been applied, such a light touch was used that no trace remains. There are hints of film grain here and there, but very little noise. Set It Off was made before digital intermediates became standard, so that it doesn’t have the “processed” look that has become so common in today’s releases. For that reason alone, I found the image refreshing to watch.
As has become standard on Warner’s new Blu-rays, the audio defaults to the Dolby TrueHD track. Indeed, although the Dolby Digital “compability” track is listed on the label, it isn’t even a separate option on the menu. (It’s there nevertheless; the bitrate is 640kbps, and the track is EX-encoded.) Because my Blu-ray setup doesn’t provide the ability to play the full 7.1 TrueHD mix, I had to settle for the 5.1 version, which was excellent: full-bodied and immersive, with plenty of action in the surrounds.
Just to get a sense of what I might be missing, I listened to a few passages with the EX-encoded DD track and came away convinced that the center back channel didn’t add significantly to the sense of surround, assuming one has good right and left rear speakers that image properly. However, I was impressed with the quality of the DD track, which has a bitrate over 40% higher than most standard DVDs and stood up favorably against its TrueHD companion. Some day I would very much like to participate with a group of HTFers in a professionally run double-blind test comparing level-balanced versions of the same soundtrack uncompressed against lossless compression and lossy compression at high bitrates. I’d really love to know how a track would sound to me (and others) when we didn’t know in advance how it was prepared.
One other note: During the second bank robbery, about halfway through the film, there is a moment of silence that is so striking that it appears to be a soundtrack flaw. It isn’t. It’s always been part of the mix, and it’s the sound editor’s equivalent of a jump cut. There is nothing wrong with your system; do not adjust your volume.
The Blu-ray keeps the special features (other than the bios and filmographies) from the 2005 DVD and adds a new featurette. Still missing from the Blu-ray, as it was from the DVD, is the 1996 EPK and the eight TV spots included on the laser disc. (And that, folks, is why some of us stubbornly cling to those big shiny platters.)
Setting It Straight: Making Set It Off (26:30). An entertaining retrospective with some, but not all, of the principal players. Key among them are director Gray, co-writer Takashi Bufford, former New Line executive Helena Echegoyen, producer Oren Koules and actors Fox, Elise, Underwood and McGinley. Conspicuously absent: Jada Pinkett-Smith and Queen Latifah. Warning: Familiarity with the film is assumed, and spoilers abound. Hi-def video.
Ray J, Let It Go Music Video (4:55). Standard definition video and, for my taste, nothing special
Trailer. As per its usual custom, Warner includes the film’s own trailer and no others.
At least one participant in the documentary expresses amazement that any studio greenlit Set It Off, and I doubt any studio would do so today. Nor can I think of any studio film since then that has tried a similar story, even though Set It Off was profitable. For that reason alone, the film remains a landmark.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center