Rob a bank? Sure, why not. Each of the four L.A. housing-project girlfriends who get into the heist business in Set It Off has been messed up by the system, and none have anything to lose. Frankie (Vivica Fox) was recently fired from her bank-teller job. Tisean (Kimberly Elise), a single mother, has lost her toddler son to child welfare until she can come up with the money she needs to pay for child care while she cleans offices. Cleo (Queen Latifah), a raucous, pot-smoking lesbian, is always up for messing around. And Stony (Jada Pinkett), in shock after cops kill her brother in a case of mistaken identity, just wants the means to get out. ''I want to be somebody who doesn't have to do this crap,'' she says. So the girls get guns, learn to shoot, put on wigs and sunglasses that make their bad old selves look like early Tina Turner clones, and go into the bank-robbing business the success of which inevitably leaves them wanting more.
You can hear echoes of Boyz N the Hood, Thelma & Louise, and even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Set It Off, but none of those influences account for the very particular, very engaging dark and loose qualities of this fresh piece of work from 27-year-old F. Gary Gray. The director showed his talent for nailing the funny-sliding-into-poignant improvisatory rhythm of a day in the life of a couple of nabe guys in last summer's sleeper comedy Friday. But young women hang out to a different beat: Sisterhood (and, in Tisean's case, motherhood) binds these friends together in ways no boy in the hood could understand. As in Friday, there's a lot that's loopy along the way. (Not for nothing is House Party 3's Takashi Bufford one of the screenwriters.) The foursome do a nutty Godfather riff, and Cleo, as played by the astonishing Queen L., swaggers and whoops she's a big, noisy, outrageous bundle of walking female id. But as their craving for more ticket-out money overtakes their better judgment and the girls' chief pursuer (The Rock's John McGinley playing a heavy, as usual) closes in on their fantasy world, the realities of their dingy, circumscribed lives launch Set It Off on a powerful, tragic trajectory. (Not for nothing is Kate Lanier, who wrote What's Love Got to Do With It, the other screenwriter.)
The story doesn't always hang together. There's a majorly slack, gratuitous subplot romance involving Stony and a buppie banker played by L.A. Law's Blair Underwood. But Pinkett, most recently in The Nutty Professor, does strong, unselfconscious work here; Fox, who was nothing but window dressing in Independence Day, gets to kick booty; and Elise, a stage actress making her feature debut, takes a quiet role and makes it deep. The soundtrack, with cuts from Seal, En Vogue, Fugees, Gladys Knight, and Brandy, rocks. Indeed, enough does work, and well, to make Set It Off a valuable model for a new kind of girl-pack story: one that's not just for girls. B+