The Set Up, as directed by well-known film director and producer Niyi Akinmolayan, is a break away from the ‘New’ Nollywood trend that has obsessively defined itself by well meaning, but largely incoherent mash-ups of slapstick comedy and undercooked romance. This departure attempts to explore the world of the con, with all its twists and turns, thrill and allure. The pulsing question— Can it keep up?
The movie features Nollywood favorites Adesua Etomi-Wellington and Kehinde Bankole who play the leads as Chike and Grace respectively. They play the roles of two young women whose lives have come to revolve around the stereotypical Madame (Tina Mba) after she saves them from a close run-in with the law (NDLEA). Chike and Grace are drug smugglers, and supposedly good ones too, a fact revealed via a fair bit of misguided exposition. Madame is billed as a ruthless, smooth-talking, manipulative, badass bitch with a fierce scowl. She runs ‘The Academy’, which she describes in her own words as a “Private members club” where men tired of the vanity and demands of their privileged lives come to be “thrilled”.
Blackmailed, our sister-like protagonists, like all the other ladies at ‘The Academy’, work for Madame and must now use manipulation and sex to get thrill seeking men to reveal confidential information. It’s truly a grim line of work situated in a morally ambiguous world begging for an exploration into novel narratives, but this factor is ignored in favor of over-glamourazation and a feel good action story.
The Set Up’s best attempt at depth is to provide us with an emotional backstory detailing the lives of our protagonists before they succumb to a life of crime. The intention guiding the employment of these flashbacks is to make us sympathize with, and root for the girls, but we don’t, because the dissonance that should cause us to reflect and subsequently empathize by juxtaposing the sad backgrounds of their past and the grisly reality of their present is absent. For instance, it’s easy for Chike and Grace to engage in the sabotage and blackmail of a pastor who intends to expose a big pharmaceutical company that is poisoning children with its drugs. “Why does it bother you so much?” Chike asks, when Grace decides to even remotely ponder the implications of their actions. The fact that their troubled pasts have no bearing on their consciences or the very direful decisions they are making poses a question to the relevance of showing us these flashback scenes in the first place.
Despite its numerous showy ideas, the film is ultimately about friendship, greed, and betrayal, explored through the lens of drug dealers, wealthy heirs, and greedy socialites. Edem, (played unconvincingly by Jim Iyke) is a long-time associate of Madame and an essential piece of her murky past. Here, he desires to marry Motunranyo Elesho (Dakore Egbuson Akande) who is, alongside her brother, an heir to her late father’s enormous wealth. Edem enlists the help of Madame, and a plan is quickly sprung into motion with the aid of Chike and Grace, to trick Motunrayo, the only daughter of a grieving widow, into marrying a fashionably woke conman. This is a needlessly tortuous choice for a ride that will swoon rather than awe; an overenthusiastic grab for style over substance that must have felt great on the pages of the script but pales sadly on screen
There’s also the unsteady quality to Adesua’s acting. The constant bouncing between greenhorn theatrics and well-intentioned but poorly realized ‘Oscar worthy’ posturing that makes it difficult to conclude whether she’s overdoing it or the other actors simply can’t match her grit. “I’m in charge!” She barks at a character repeatedly in the film, like she’s trying to remind herself lest she forgets and suddenly drops to her knees to swear her undying allegiance.
Along the way, there will be twists and some “wow” moments. But don’t be fooled. Beneath all its colorfulness, the grandeur of well-chosen sets and elegant production design lies the rather unfortunate but familiar tale of undercooked storytelling. The Set Up attempts to trick you, to capture your attention with its numerous twists and turns, which start to spill just on the hour. But by then you are twirling in space, lost in its black hole of incoherent dialogue, inconsistent acting and shoddy editing (a fruit of the film’s wantonly attempt to ‘wow’ by juggling multiple timelines so much it winds up slipping over itself repeatedly). Perhaps, a more straightforward look at an already unconvincing story filled with unconvincing characters would suffice.
On a much lighter note notwithstanding, the film is masterfully photographed and boasts an impressive score, as opposed to the usual mishmash of popular Nigerian music and ungainly instrumentals. Veteran actress Joke Silva, who plays Motunrayo’s mother, is the movie’s best gift and she manages to ‘keep on giving’ with every scene she appears in. Ultimately, The Set Up is ambitious in story but unimaginative in execution. It is a crowd-pleaser, but bang average at best.
As a final thought, Nollywood is in right in the middle of a renaissance. Now, more than ever, its already enterprising filmmakers are inching closer and closer to the global stage. The onus is therefore on them to match this ambition with profound execution or risk the staple of ‘successful mediocrity.’