Film Review: The Set Up is too much, yet not enough – Wilfred Okiche

Think of The Set Up, released in theatres last year and now streaming on Netflix, as a labyrinth.

A convoluted maze where every turn is a red herring, every player has their own agenda, and nothing is quite what it seems. To get an idea of the too much-ness of the film, look no further than the cold open.

It starts out in an underprivileged neighborhood in the year 1998, quickly introduces two of the story’s major characters, then zips ahead to 2011. But not before making a stop in 2005. The idea is to unpack the bond between two of the central players, Chike and Grace as they grow from innocents to jaded young women working on the fringes of society. They are played at first by child actors, who eventually morph into Adesua Etomi and Kehinde Bankole as the adult iterations.

It is a curious way to set up the story but not an altogether surprising one. The Set Up is after all written and produced by Naz Onuzo, a plot maximalist who is unlikely to say no to any chance to ramp it up to excess. In 2018’s ghastly New Money, Onuzo’s writing gifted his heroine with not one or two, but three love interests, all the better to complicate her arc. And the embarrassing final act of last year’s Love is War is virtually a cautionary tale on how not to carry tired television tropes to film, however promising they might read on paper.

In any case, The Set Up’s multi-story structure is the one place where this twist-a-minute sensationalism could actually work. And for the most part, it does. After the opening credits, The Set Up is carved up into several sections, each one named for the character that drives it.

Etomi’s Chike kicks off proceedings. A series of incidents have led her- and her bff Grace- to go to work for a powerful figure known simply as madame- a perfectly cast Tina Mba whose mysterious smile hints at malice. And maybe a dash of madness too. Madame runs an establishment that provides specific services to her wealthy clientele. She calls it a private members club but don’t blame the uninitiated for imagining it as a whorehouse.

The ladies work as some sort of intelligence operatives, using body, brain and brawn to elicit information that their high profile clientele is willing to pay huge sums for. Edem (Jim Iyke) is one of such clients. His elaborate scheme involves infiltrating the industrious Elesho family, led by the hard charging Toyin (Joke Silva playing Joke Silva.)

Before The Set Up gets around to this though, there is a superfluous side arc involving a harmful clinical trial for a potential vaccine. At the end of the film, it isn’t quite clear how and why these two stories should connect but The Set Up isn’t the type of film to prioritize detail when a rollicking good yarn can be deployed instead.

Directed by Niyi Akinmolayan (The Arbitration, The Wedding Party 2) The Set Up seeks to entertain you to a stupor, all the while hoping this will be enough to cover up such nagging inconsistencies as contrived occurrences, a plot hole here and there, production design flaws (a flashback scene in a hospital has modern equipment) and even clumsy editing. Major developments are willed into happening not because they make sense instinctively or narratively, but because they must lead to a predetermined solution.

Technically, The Set Up has its moments and even works as a genre entry with Muhammad Atta’s lighting choosing to dwell heavily in neon like bursts polished to a glossy sheen. The soundtrack is arresting and costume and make up rely heavily on bright colors that depict a specific if unchallenging idea of wealth and decadence.

The actors are mostly capable but the characters they play are all vacant. None of them save Mba’s Madame makes enough of an impression for audiences to root for. In any case the stakes never reach high enough and no one is in trouble deep enough for anyone to invest any genuine emotions. Kehinde Bankole comes the closest but her Grace isn’t given much to do and is actually hamstrung by a forced romantic attraction.

Produced by a collaborative effort between Inkblot and Anakle films,- both teams first came together for 2018’s Up North, a visually appealing bore,- if The Set Up has anything to say at all, it is that whether families are chosen or forged in blood, the ties that bind are just as meaningful.

Such a message is always durable and while spectacle will always be welcome at the movies, The Set Up is proof that a film can be too much yet not enough.

(Wilfred Okiche is still waiting for that one movie that will change his life. )

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