Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

The Instant Movie Club: Set Up

Every week, your friends at Culture Blues get together to watch a movie from their Netflix Instant queue. Then, they gather around the breakfast table to read the sports page and answer a series of discussion questions. This is The Instant Movie Club.

This week we’re watching Set Up. On Friday, Bruce Willis returns to theaters as John McClane in A Good Day to Die Hard. But today, he’s appearing in a direct-to-video crime movie starring Ryan Phillippe and 50 Cent. It’s directed and co-written by a Hollywood stuntman, so you know it has to be good.

Next week: Flirting With Disaster. In honor of David O. Russell's second Best Director nomination in 3 years, we'll be discussing his sophomore effort featuring Ben Stiller on a quest to meet his biological parents.

Celebrating their upcoming musical collaboration, Get Bruno or Die Tryin'.

What begins as a simple quest for revenge for 50 Cent’s character becomes something more complicated. Was his emotional journey effective?

Jeremiah White:  Set Up is an inept production from start to finish. The acting is generally poor, the dialogue is trite, the style is derivative (I like how only some characters get a freeze frame introduction with text like “The Muscle” or “The Mob Boss”, and how one character gets it the second time we meet them). All that’s par for the course with a low-budget direct-to-video project like this. But what makes Set Up such an utter failure is when director Mike Gunther gets all self-serious and strains to assign some significance to the friendship between the three thieves or 50 Cent’s struggle with religion. No matter how many times 50 Cent tells us he’s been friends with these guys since high school, it’s never remotely believable (and it’s never less believable than when 50 Cent delivers a painfully stiff line of dialogue about avenging his “longtime friend” – was this script written by the same people who write the Netflix summaries?). When 50 Cent lets Phillippe live, after spending the whole movie determined to kill him, it’s a cheap thematic statement by the writers. Not at all a resonant or logical conclusion to the character’s mission.

Ben Van Iten:  50 Cent’s character (I’m not going to call him Sonny, okay) suffers from the same annoying inconsistencies that plague his rap efforts. He wants to be the hardened bad boy who can kill a mother fucker at the drop of a hat, yet won’t do it in cold blood, knows every shady person in the world but isn’t at all like them, and is struggling with some vague Jesus issues. What I’m trying to say is, his emotional journey sucks. At the end of the movie when he lets Phillipe live I’m not thinking, “oh man I’m so relieved he’s above it all”, the first thought I had was, “good luck getting shot in the back of the head a year from now because you’re a moron”.

Which of the many glaring plot holes, inconsistencies and production follies is your favorite?

Jeremiah White:  Totally unfair question. That’s like picking a favorite child… if you hate all your children and had nothing to do with their creation or upbringing. But there will always be a special place in my heart for the non-existent time of year in which Set Up takes place. Early on, Phillippe stands on a Detroit rooftop and exclaims “Fuck the holidays!” It comes out of nowhere; there is practically nothing about the production that indicates this is supposed to take place during “the holidays.” There are no decorations up in stores or on homes, no Christmas music playing. Maybe Phillippe just adlibbed it and then the director covered for him by having a few other people reference “the holidays”. Anyway, later on, in a scene meant to show Bruce Willis’ cavalier attitude toward torture (cool!), he starts making small talk with an underling while some dude is being held underwater. The topic of this chitchat? That baseball game last night! So, Set Up takes place during the snowy Detroit “holidays” that occur sometime between April and October.

A close second is how 50 Cent claims that Phillippe is surrounded by an army, even though we’ve only seen him with one other dude. I know that “one-man army” is a saying, but I’ve only ever seen one legitimate “one-man army.” And John Matrix ain’t in Set Up.

Ben Van Iten:  Bruce Willis’ character (glad the writers took all of two seconds to come up with “Biggs” by the way) is established as a ruthless and cunning gangster who has spent his whole life creating an empire. In the limo scene he tells Fitty that young men should spend more time relaxing because they have no idea how quick life really is. It should stand to reason that this wisdom rich mob boss should be so easily duped by a halfwit whose lies don’t even look convincing. When Willis is interrogating our plucky hero about the missing money it takes him all of five seconds to decide that he should go ahead and start a gun battle with no evidence to speak of.

Honorary mention goes to Randy Couture’s character deciding that he and 50 Cent are best buds for life after holding a gun to his head ten minutes earlier. If I had two million dollars that belonged to my insane boss I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d leave it in the back of a car and go hang out with a gun nut drug dealer that I haven’t met before. But hey, that’s just me!

If you were Bruce Willis, Ryan Phillippe and 50 Cent, what would have convinced you to sign on to such a project? For the purposes of this discussion, “Straight cash, homie” is not an acceptable answer.

Jeremiah White:  This is a no brainer for 50 Cent. He gets to play the good guy. He gets to do stuff like tell a widow that he’s “going to make it better” at her husband’s funeral a few weeks before sending her stacks of money, which replaces a dead loved one in 50 Cent’s mind. Also, he’s producing so there’s more money to be had. As for Bruce Willis, sometimes that kind of weird stunt coordinator from your last hit calls you up and asks you to be in some shitty movie he’s making, and you just say yes because you know how tough Hollywood can be and you know that your career is way beyond being sunk by a 3-scene performance. As for Phillippe, I don’t know. I bet they paid him a bunch of money for one week of work. Oops, sorry!

Ben Van Iten:  I think you are dead on when it comes to 50 Cent. I mean, what else do we expect from him anyway? He certainly isn’t going to be starring in anything that shows up at your local art cinema any time soon. Phillipe’s career has been inconsistent for a while so I’m not all that surprised there either…to me the real mystery is Bruce Willis. There simply has to be something going on behind the scenes (a favor owed of some type, a high stakes game of truth or dare, etc) because there is no way he reads this script and just signs off on it. I suppose another alternative is he simply missed being a psychopath. Bruce Willis, with a few exceptions naturally, has dutifully played the hero for so long that maybe he just wanted to let loose and torture a few Russians!

Create your own direct-to-DVD release. Choose a rapper, a few movie stars, and a plot. Go!

Ben Van Iten:  Too Short plays a down on his luck rapper who has murdered people before but he’s done doing that now, who meets a girl from a life of privilege who is played by Alicia Silverstone. Will the fact that they have nothing in common and he just says a bunch of gross shit all the time get in the way of true love? Also, Benjamin Bratt has a beard and he is mad about something.

Jeremiah White:  DMX is an eccentric billionaire who invites a disparate group of individuals to a dinner party at his dog-shaped mansion. After dinner (but before dessert), the guests (including Brad Dourif, Ann Dowd, William Fichtner, Maggie Grace and Will Forte) are forced to participate in a series of deadly games. As the guests dwindle, it becomes clear everything is not as it appears.

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