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The first half-hour of Set It Off ticks off a checklist of societal nastinesses to which young black women are vulnerable. First, bank teller Frankie (Vivica A. Fox) witnesses a bloody holdup by a ‘hood acquaintance. Frankie’s job had her halfway out of the Los Angeles projects she grew up in, but dreamy Tisean (Kimberly Elise) and the indomitable Cleo (Queen Latifah) do menial work that reminds them firmly of their place in society—they scrub a gleaming office tower while the executives sleep. Stony (Jada Pinkett) has poured all her own dreams into her brother’s future; the things this tiny, pretty girl does to assure him a future at UCLA and beyond must be what earned her that hard nickname.

Soon, Stony’s brother is gunned down by the LAPD, Tisean’s baby is sucked into the child welfare system after an accident at work, and Frankie is accused of complicity in the bank robbery and dismissed, unable even to change out of her blood-spattered suit. Indignity is piled on injustice and the women circle back to each other, each one aware that the other three are the only people she knows guaranteed not to screw her. The friendship also provides a depressing reality check—yes, things are equally awful all around.

F. Gary Gray, a music-video director who made the sleeper comedy Friday, uses a raw, confrontational style that keeps the audience’s hand, as it were, over the flame. He doesn’t cheat with the handheld antics of his post-Sidney Lumet TV counterparts—Set It Off is all the more upsetting for the camera’s calm and the smooth storytelling. A little jolting or some zip-pans might allow us to avert our eyes.

Not the type of women to reject an idea just because it was proposed while they were high, the four seriously consider robbing a bank themselves—at first, it sounds like a simple way to get some quick cash. But after one score, the feeling of power, of togetherness, of getting their own back, overtakes them all.

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This is not the most articulate crew of gangsters ever to grace the screen, but Gray fills in the spaces for them with attentiveness and an ear for the quirky, just right, decision. The first robbery, planned meticulously, starts shakily as Tisean backs out and the girls feel the tug into the space between their saucy talk and the shocking thing they’re about to do. But Frankie yanks her wig on—the girls are dressed like down-and-out Supremes, in ’70s clothes and brown Marilyn wigs—and charges into the bank, as everything goes dreamlike; a feminine, perky instrumental version of “The ‘In’ Crowd” plays over the scene.

The actresses are all wonderful playing these women as perfect innocents—of course they’re spiraling to their doom, but which ones, and when? Gray doesn’t drop hints or nudge the tragedies; Set It Off is the farthest thing from the TV-movie tidiness of Boyz N the Hood. They go about their lives with eyes wide open to the future they think they’ve bought: Stony takes up with a suave, handsome bank manager (Blair Underwood) who is not too condescending about her lack of pedigree; Cleo squanders her money on the things she loves most—a fabulous ’61 Impala and a silent girlfriend constructed just as fabulously.

The story follows Stony’s reserved, unjudgmental dabblings with an alternate version of bank work, but Queen Latifah’s Cleo is this movie’s engine. She is as regal and slightly ridiculous as both her names, unashamed of her big butch size or her big butch manners, petty or generous as the mood takes her, her temper so short that she may actually have been born without one. She keeps her face clamped down tight, a fire hydrant of emotion that one twist can unleash, while her expressive body and voice let everything out.

It’s resignation behind those comically screwed-up features, hopelessness and a sense of inevitability that while someone has to win this game it won’t be her. Cleo has never been cut a break—ungainly, loud-mouthed black lesbians from South Central never are, and when she makes the choice for defiance and style, she does it like no one else, not even her sisters in crime. As engaging as it is devastating, Set It Off is a gift to everyone who feels that movies have offered them a pittance lately—not just women and blacks, but the overstimulated, underamused moviegoing public.

I kind of wanted to see Ransom because it had a great trailer and I thought I liked Opie movies. Then I remembered it was Meathead movies I liked, for a while, until he learned how easy it was to make them. Opie movies tend to be one step below Laverne movies in predictability, sentimentality, and unlikelihood, with the exception of Apollo 13. But everything that made that Oscar-winner such an entertaining anthem in praise of science geeks—its leisurely length, its contracting and expanding rhythms, its starring cast and cannily chosen secondary parts—Ron Howard recycles for Ransom, unaware, perhaps, that an entirely different script requires entirely different direction.

So self-made airline magnate Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson, but it doesn’t matter; their names are interchangeable) swans around his spectacular apartment overlooking Central Park with his perfect son (Brawley Nolte, Nick’s kid) and gorgeous wife (Rene Russo, usually red-nostrilled from weeping here). His friends are swank, his Jag is silver, he pushes PH in the elevator to get to his floor. When his kid is whisked away by a gang of kidnappers, we are asked not only to give a fuck, but to root our brains out for a full two hours while he does millionaire things like rent an entire TV network at a moment’s notice to broadcast a plea to the villains.

We know they’re villains because they have tattoos in odd places (neck, fingers) and play loud rock music of the type that can only be described as loud rock music. There are no fewer than five of them, and they’re only asking for two million—what do they need to buy so badly, Pez? Head stinker is Gary Sinese as Jimmy Shaker, a cop who apparently doesn’t have to account for taking lots of time off to smack around his loser gang and make sinister phone calls to the hapless but plucky capitalist.

One should expect a little professionalism from a man who’s made so many slick movies. But long periods at the beginning and the end are filmed with such a shaky camera I couldn’t tell what was going on (something exciting, no doubt), and the otherwise straightforward film is pocked with inexplicable artiness—fades into black-and-white, slow motion when nothing much is happening, and one scene edited so bizarrely that Gibson seems to beam himself to different parts of the kitchen for every line.

Ransom is a good-looking movie, all the actors are fine, especially Delroy Lindo as the FBI agent Hawkins. There are even wonderful little performances tucked in the corners—Dan Hedaya, for crying out loud. But it’s as if Howard gathered the staff of Johns Hopkins to help him dissect a frog. There’s no getting around the fact that at Ransom’s center is a well-heeled smoothie going renegade to fight for what he loves. Aren’t renegades supposed to be outside the system? The Mullens certainly aren’t; their sense of entitlement is huge. “You’re the goddamn FBI and you don’t know shit!” the wife screams at the elite corps of federal muscle that has set up shop in her penthouse. If it wasn’t for the life at stake, you’d want to tell these whining yuppies to find their own damn kid.

In the end, though, it isn’t about the child. Mullen goes postal on Shaker because he’s “human garbage,” a colorful reason but not as pointed as Shaker’s rationale for targeting Mullen in the first place—a softie who’ll pay his way out of trouble, Mullen bribed a thug to thwart a labor strike. “I’m glad we’re not rich,” Agent Hawkins whispers on the phone to his wife. No shit.CP