‘Set Up’ Moves from A to B to C at Lightning Pace and With Little to No Causality or Connection

[1 November 2011]

By Brent McKnight

I always want to like Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson in movies, I really do. As an emcee, he has a street edge—which largely stems from being shot nine times—that lends an authenticity and credence to his music. For a time his legend was bigger than his career.

This persona, however, has failed to adequately transfer to ‘50s movie roles. The closest he came was in 2005’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, but come on, he was playing his own damn self, so that hardly counts. Since an initial stab at a mainstream film career, Jackson has plied his acting trade in smaller roles, and a series of gritty, direct-to-video crime films, many of which he produced. Common sense would seemingly dictate that these are the types of movies that he would be perfect for. But even in these parts he never quite delivers, which is the central flaw in Jackson’s new DTV effort, Set Up.

Jackson may have the name recognition to carry a movie, but his acting leaves something to be desired. He’s Sonny, a Detroit hood. Sonny wanted to be a priest growing up, so you can tell isn’t a completely bad guy, he’s simply a petty criminal who, along with his childhood pals, Vincent (Ryan Phillippe) and Dave (Brett Granstaff), does just enough to get by.

When a diamond heist goes bad, Vincent betrays his friends, killing Dave, leaving Sonny for dead, and keeping the big score for himself. So Sonny gets the bullet pulled out of his shoulder, setting out on a quest for revenge that takes him through the outlaw underworld of the Motor City until he gets in over his head. The story is an impressive collection of clichés, to be sure.

Sure, the plot doesn’t do Set Up any favors, but handled correctly, it’s serviceable, and could result in a solid DTV actioner. Cinematic revenge is simple, but effective. Set Up, however, flounders. There are far too many departures and asides that take away from main narrative drive. 

In his search for Vincent, Sonny crosses a top-tier local gangster, named, I kid you not, Mr. Biggs (Bruce Willis).  Of course Sonny has to deal with that sticky mess, which leads to all sorts of other tangential complications, including a bit with MMA legend Randy Couture who plays a gun-obsessed goon who just wants to score some weed. Willis has some fun with Biggs, but overall the character is little more than a stock type he could have played in his sleep.

Motivation, or lack of motivation, is a huge dilemma for Set Up. It’s obvious what pushes Sonny—he was betrayed and shot and can’t believe his boy would do something like that—but Vincent turns seemingly for nothing. There’s no character development or build up for the movie to lean on. Things happen because that’s what happens in this type of movie.

In one scene a couple of rival sets get together for a meeting and out of nowhere everyone has guns pointed at each other, and instead of milking this ill-gotten scenario for any sort of tension, as quickly as the guns came out the bullets start to fly. Now I’m all for a gratuitous gun battle, but Set Up moves from A to B to C at lightning pace and with little to no causality or connection.

Everything is too easy. In every beginning creative writing class the first thing you learn is the mantra “show, don’t tell”, which basically means show your characters doing something and let your readers make up their minds if that makes this person good or bad or whatever point you’re trying to convey. They beat that into your little writer’s skull, but the script of Set Up insists on avoiding showing anyone do anything. You don’t get to see Mr. Biggs be the baddest man you’ve ever laid eyes on, you’re forced to take some bit player’s word for it.

There is potential in Set Up, but nothing much comes of it, unless you want to see some laughable attempts to infuse the characters with a sense of spirituality. This film is destined for DTV obscurity, occasionally picked up by curious hands as it languishes in a three-movies-for-$10 bin at a local supermarket. If the DVD had the capacity to perceive sound, it would often hear, “Hmmm, Bruce Willis? Set Up? Never heard of this one.” And rightfully so.

The DVD comes with a decent collection of bonus features, though nothing on the disc will blow your hair back in any way shape of form. There’s a standard making-of featurette, and another that explores the various guns involved in Set Up. If you’re into the specifics of the weaponry, this may interesting, but for my money the high point is listening the prop master talk about the necessity of finding rubberized replicas of the guns because, as he points out, while there are a bunch of bullets flying around, there are even more people being pistol-whipped.

A commentary track with writer/director Mike Gunther and stunt coordinator Kyle Woods is a nice touch, but, again, does nothing to distinguish this package from the herd. Interviews with Jackson and Couture are of mild interest, but for my money the peak of the extras is the 12-minute interview with Gunther. He talks about the gestation of the film, and his enthusiasm is clear (though it still doesn’t make Set Up any better). His personal journey is the most interesting part, he began as a stuntman, then moved through the ranks as a second unit director, and finally took the helm of his own film, and consequently offers a unique perspective.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/150752-set-up/