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Film / Set It Off (1996)
aka: Set It Off

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The only breaks you get are the ones you take.

A 1996 crime drama movie directed by F. Gary Gray. It stars Jada Pinkett, Vivica A. Fox, Queen Latifah, Kimberly Elise, and Blair Underwood.

Frankie Sutton (Vivica A. Fox) is an ordinary bank teller who is unfortunate enough to be behind the desk on the day that a group of bank robbers hit her place of work. The robbery goes wrong, with several people, including one of the robbers, ending up dead. To make her day even worse, the bank fires her for an arbitrary "breach of protocol" after the police reveal that she knew one of the robbers in front of her boss. With no job, no money, and her life spiralling out of control, she joins her friends Cleo (Latifah), Stony (Pinkett), and T.T. (Elise) working meager, minimum wage jobs as janitors under their foul-mouthed, abusive boss Luther. After Stony's brother Stevie is gunned down and T.T.'s son is taken by the CPS after suffering an accident at her job, Frankie comes up with a plan to get them the finances they need to survive—by taking it from her former employers.

Their first robbery goes off without a hitch, and the women find themselves with more cash than they possibly could have imagined. Unfortunately, their ill-gotten gains threaten to cause a rift between the friends, as some are worried about the consequences of becoming criminals, while others are driven by greed to hit more banks. Not making things any easier is LAPD Detective Strode (John C. McGinley), who is determined to put a stop to this new group of would-be fugitives and end their crime spree before it begins.


  • And Starring: Since this is Kimberly Elise's film debut, she gets the "and introducing" credit.
  • Asshole Victim: The girls' jerkass employer Luther, who steals (and spends) some of the money from their second robbery. The girls track him down and attempt to force him to return what's left of their score, but are forced to kill him when he resists by pulling a gun, leaving the whereabouts of the money unknown. Darnell, who started the robbery that got Frankie fired, and Lorenz, who gave Stevie the haircut that matched his own, and then caused his death as he was mistaken for Lorenz, also count.
  • Bank Robbery: Four in total.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Stoney wanted to get up out of the ghetto after Stevie's death. By the end, she can't even come back to the country.
  • Being Evil Sucks: Most of the gang who take part in the opening bank robbery get killed. The girls never have a chance to benefit from their robberies. The proceeds of their second robbery are stolen before they can spend it, and rather than cutting their losses and just laying low until their trail goes cold, they end up killing the guy who took it before he can tell them where he stashed it and executing a third robbery soon after, with the police already dangerously close to catching them for the murder and the prior robberies. Finally, all but Stoney are killed before they can enjoy their final score.
  • Butch Lesbian: Cleo. Her girlfriend Ursula is a Lipstick Lesbian.
  • Call-Back / Armor-Piercing Question / Ironic Echo: "What's the procedure when you've got a gun to your head?"
  • Car Meets House: Or rather, car meets bank.
  • Cowboy Cop: All the cops in this movie are extremely trigger-happy. At the start of the movie, they gun down Stoney's unarmed brother. They riddle Cleo's car with bullets while pursuing her and also shoot Frankie in the back when she tries to run away from them.
    • Same goes for the security guard at the last bank robbery.
  • Crapsack World: What drives the women to start robbing banks. Frankie gets fired merely for knowing one of the guys who robbed her bank. The other three are low paid janitors and have to work for a sexist and jerkass boss. Stoney's innocent brother is gunned down by the police. TT's son is removed and taken into care by the state after he suffers an accident when she brings him to work because she cannot afford childcare for him.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The beginning of the movie wants you to think that Frankie is the main protagonist. However, the main protagonist turns out to be Stoney.
  • Did Not Think This Through:
    • The girls decide to start robbing banks without considering the likelihood of them being caught, or that they and other people will probably end up getting hurt.
    • They also didn't consider the possibility that stashing money away in a heavily-used office building would lead to it being discovered at some point. How they cope with this afterwards (tracking down the man who stole it and killing him when he resists instead of just cutting their losses and laying low for a while) counts also.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Teetee died in Stoney's arms.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Apparently knowing the person robbing the bank where you have worked faithfully for years and being too panicked to trip the alarm because you just saw an innocent woman get killed right in front of you is enough to get you fired and fingered as a possible accomplice to said robbery.
    • The women, particularly Frankie (who was the victim of the above) and Stonie are worse, since they see robbing banks as acceptable payback for being fired and losing a brother to police violence as opposed to suing for wrongful termination and wrongful death, respectively,
  • The Ditz: There are some moments where T.T. proves that she isn't the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. She's a sweetheart, though.
  • The Dog Bites Back: The security guard that shoots T.T. is the same security guard that T.T. held at gunpoint during the second bank robbery. Turns out he had a vendetta against her... of course, this ends up getting him gunned down by Cleo and Stony immediately afterwards.
  • Downer Ending: The ladies' final bank robbery goes horribly wrong and T.T., Cleo, and Frankie are killed while trying to escape from the police. Stony survives and escapes to Mexico with her share of the cash, but she's going to be on the run for the rest of her life and away from her boyfriend Keith. In addition, Cleo's girlfriend Ursula and the rest of the ladies' surviving friends and loved ones are left to mourn their losses, and T.T.'s son Jajuan now faces an uncertain life in foster care following the death of his mother.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: This is how Cleo dies, after losing T.T. and splitting up from Frankie and Stoney. She tries to hold the cops up long enough, and after realizing she's got nothing left, she decides she won't go down without a fight. She gets executed firing squad style after jumping out of her car to shoot cops.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Cleo is the most unscrupulous of the four, already having a criminal record, shoving a gun in Stoney's face while high, and just generally being the most hot-headed and aggressive of the bunch, but she does sincerely love her friends and her girlfriend, to the point of letting her partners run away with the cash and distracting the cops after their last heist goes wrong.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: The women are janitors. This is especially hard on Frankie because she used to be a bank teller. It speaks a lot of their poverty when their dream job is to work in a factory (which had been closed down) for $15 an hour.
  • Four-Girl Ensemble: Cleo is the straight-laced, streetwise one of the group,Stony is the Team Mom,(after all,she has been raising her younger brother since their parents died.) Frankie is the sexy one,and T.T is the sweet, naive one.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Stony (Melancholic), Frankie (Choleric), Cleo (Sanguine), T.T.(Phlegmatic).
  • Gangsta Style: The bank robbers at the start of the movie wield their guns like this.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Det. Strode helps get Frankie fired when he grills her about the opening bank robbery, but he later starts to sympathize with the women, especially when Stoney's brother is killed by a S.W.A.T. team led by him in a case of mistaken identity. In the end, he lets Stoney get away because he realizes he was one of the ones responsible for ruining the girls' lives and turning them to crime.
  • Hellish L.A.: The film takes place in Los Angeles, California, and the central themes are poverty and crime.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Cleo makes one to help Stoney and Frankie get away.
  • Hot Pursuit: The final robbery results in one of these.
  • Hubris: As the women get more successful, they start getting careless. Cleo steals her first car from an underground parking lot and wears gloves. By the end she's stealing cars in broad daylight and stops bothering with the gloves. In the final robbery they abandon their time limit in order to steal more money.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy:
    • The security guard during the last robbery fires several shots, only one of them hits someone (that someone being T.T.). That same guard later gets lit up by Cleo and Stoney.
    • During the final standoff Cleo fires an Uzi directly at Strode and Waller, but somehow misses both of them.
    • At least a dozen cops open fire on Cleo's car but not one bullet hits her. It isn't until Cleo steps out and begins shooting that she is actually shot.
  • Important Haircut: After escaping to Mexico and mourning her friends, Stoney cuts all her long hair off.
  • In the Back: Luther and Frankie both get shot in the back.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Luther refusing to pay T.T. under the counter. She was essentially asking him to risk his livelihood by committing by tax fraud, so his refusal is understandable.
  • Justified Criminal: The four women see themselves this way.
  • Karma Houdini: Stoney escapes justice and successfully makes it to Mexico with her share of the money.
  • Lower-Class Lout: Several examples. One is Lorenz and Darnell, obviously, who are seen robbing the bank that Frankie works at. Another is Lorenz's girlfriend, Tamika. She has no known occupation, but is clearly able to get her hair and nails done. Tamika is also the one who shaves the letters A.P.(for Acorn Projects) in the back of Stevie's head,despite the latter not being from said projects. Also,this was per Lorenz's suggestion, and could have been done to get the police off his own back. Also Luther, the girls' employer. Despite owning a janitorial company, he doesn't look very wealthy. That is, until he finds the money from the girls' bank robberies and steals it. Plus, Luther is NOT a nice person.
    • Also, the girls themselves once they begin robbing banks, but this is justified due to the bad breaks they suffer.
  • Menacing Mask: Stoney, Cleo, and TT wear transparent plastic masks over their faces during the final robbery that prove effective at distorting them to the point of hardly being recognisable. Somewhat of a Paper-Thin Disguise however, since they don't bother covering their rather distinctive hairstyles.
  • Mexican Standoff: T.T., Cleo and Stoney have one with Strode during the final robbery.
  • Nervous Wreck: T.T. is the least ready of the women to start robbing banks and even bails out on their first job. While she gets used to the danger, her jittery demeanor comes back in a terrible way when she shoots Luther after he points a gun at Cleo.
  • Nice Guy: Keith. Keith to a T. He treats Stony very well, buys her a new dress in-store for an event they attend that night, legitimately enjoys her company, and, shortly after figuring out that she robbed his bank and escaped the country, is just happy that she's alright.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
    • If Frankie's boss hadn't been so quick to fire her and Det. Strode's men had shown more discretion before shooting Stoney's brother, those two women might not have been so willing to go along with robbing banks.
    • During the final bank robbery, Det. Strode confronts the women and tries to settle things peacefully before any blood can be shed. Just when it seems he's getting through to them (or at least, to Stony and T.T.), the bank security guard comes out of nowhere and guns down T.T., who had already laid down her weapon. Cue the climax...
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • T.T., when she backs out of the first robbery at the last minute.
    • Cleo, Frankie and T.T. when they find that Luther has suddenly left the company soon after they stashed their robbery money in the building they clean for him and put two-and-two together.
    • T.T. has another when she kills Luther.
    • Strode has a minor one when, during the last bank robbery, a security guard comes out of nowhere and shoots Tisean multiple times.
  • The Oldest Profession: Luther is with a prostitute when the girls find him after he steals their money. Stoney is forced to prostitute herself to pay her brother's college fees.
  • One Last Smoke: After Cleo, Stoney, and Frankie all split, Cleo distracts the cops so the other two can get away. When they surround her car, she pulls out a cigarette before plowing through the barricade and being shot up with guns a-blazing.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: When the girls rob their first bank, they wear nothing more than wigs and sunglasses. Keith easily recognizes Stoney when the footage of the robbery is shown in a meeting.
  • Police Are Useless: The police kill Stoney's brother when he was only carrying a champagne bottle and had nothing to do with the opening bank robbery anyway. They do, however, quickly identify the culprits in the new spate of robberies.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: The four women kill two people, shoot at police, steal cars, rob hundreds of thousands of dollars from banks, threaten to kill a murder witness, and threaten dozens of innocents at the banks they rob, but are portrayed sympathetically by the circumstances leading to this descent into darkness.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Frankie's motivation for suggesting that they rob banks (she was unjustly fired from hers) and Stoney's reason for ultimately going along with it (lashing out after the cops mistakenly gunned down her brother). It doesn't end well for them.
  • Running Gag: Every time Cleo steals a car, she tosses out all the music CDs she doesn't like.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Teetee is the first to die. She was the least harmful of the group and the one who needed the money the most.
  • Sexual Extortion: Stoney asks her boss for an advance on her wages. He agrees, provided she sleeps with him. She does, reluctantly.
  • Shoot Him, He Has a Wallet!: What gets Stoney's brother killed, as the cops think he's pulling out a gun (it's actually a champagne bottle). Near the end, Det. Strode acknowledges that this incident was the trigger for Stoney's participation in the bank robberies.
  • Shout-Out: There's one to the The Godfather when they sit at a large table in a boardroom and plan their last bank robbery.
  • Suicide by Cop: Frankie and Cleo take this option.
  • Suspicious Spending: Cleo spent her cut of the first heist on fixing up her low rider. Luther finds the girl's money and spends it on a hooker, alcohol and watches.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Of your typical heist plot. The women assure themselves they won't get caught and no one will get hurt. But once they begin robbing banks, the police inevitably start to close in and people do get killed, including three of the gang. Turns out they aren't in a heist movie.
  • Title Drop
    Cleo: We ain't robbing stagecoaches! I need something I can set it off with.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: The girls put on their disguises in full view of passersby before the first robbery but no one seems to care.
  • The Villain Knows Where You Live: Invoked by Cleo, in order to scare the prostitute who witnesses Luther's murder into silence.
  • The Voiceless: Ursula. Even when she laughs, she makes little noise. The only noise she makes is her screaming when Cleo messes with her via Homemade Flamethrower.
  • What Have I Done: Det. Strode has a moment like this after Frankie is killed, realizing his involvement in turning the girls to a life of crime, and allows Stoney to escape.
  • Where da White Women At?: The prostitute that Luther is seen having sex with is a blonde-haired white woman.

Alternative Title(s): Set It Off