I braced myself to be disappointed by Set It Off, based on its stereotyped trailers.
Silly me. The movie, though flawed, is a find.
The movie about four black women who, desperate after various bad breaks, embark on a bank-
robbing spree, has drawn comparisons to other recent heist flicks. But Set It Off owes as much to Bonnie and Clyde as to Dead Presidents
The setting is South Central Los Angeles, but the feeling is Dust Bowl - the doomed characters, their excitement and sense of invulnerability, the inevitable collapse, the gory deaths, the despair of the fugitive cornered in the final chase, even a bullet-riddled car.
The story is at its weakest early on, when it is explaining why these four characters, three of them struggling to hold jobs and raise children, would turn to violent crime.
It falls back on the standard mix of self-pity and bad temper that passes for motivation in action films these days, and skim-coats it with nasty racial animosity toward white people with their ''system'' and their cops and their ugly babies.
But the tale is really rooted in classic outlaw mythology of Robin Hood and Jesse James, where the criminal as populist hero acts out the anger and suffering at society's margins.
The movie rises above simply storybook fare thanks to fine performances that involve us in the lives of the four women - Stony (Jada Pinkett), Cleo (Queen Latifah), Frankie (Vivica Fox) and Tisean (Kimberly Elise). In particular, Queen Latifah, a rapper and television star, almost walks off with the movie as a hard-bitten, loyal and none-too-smart lesbian car thief.
Ms. Pinkett (The Nutty Professor) also is impressive as a thorny young woman whose relationship with a handsome Harvard-educated officer at a target bank (Blair Underwood) briefly promises a respectable way out.
Screenwriters Kate Lanier and Takashi Bufford and director F. Gary Gray deserve credit for sidestepping the ghetto-melodrama trap to turn Set It Off into a modern fable with a human heart.
IF YOU GO:
Set it Off
(R; language, violence, sexuality) Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise, Blair Underwood. 120 minutes. At National Amusements, Danbarry Cinemas.