Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 21st, 2020
Cut Throat City (RZA, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.
The rapper, music producer and filmmaker RZA (aka Robert Fitzgerald Diggs) has clearly seen a lot of gangster films and crime dramas. In Cut Throat City, his third feature behind the camera (after the 2012 The Man with the Iron Fists and 2017 Love Beats Rhymes), he references what seems like the entire canon, for better and for worse, though his setting in post-Hurricane-Katrina New Orleans gives his take on the genre a uniquely depressing and tawdry twist. He also brings in strong currents of racial and class-based oppression, his protagonists coming from the city’s poor Lower Ninth Ward. We follow four friends – three Black and one white – as they navigate the challenges of life in a devastated city with no opportunities to make money by legitimate means. Unfortunately, each choice they make, however understandable in context, only makes a bad situation worse, and soon they are in danger of losing everything.
The surrounding movie, filled with fine actors and initially well-crafted moments though it may be, devolves over time into an overstuffed and overwrought narrative muddle, leaving the central performances adrift in a sea of simultaneous violence and mawkish sentiment. Still, it begins strongly, as we meet Blink (Shameik Moore, Dope) on his wedding day, hanging with his best buds before the ceremony, their genuine rapport enlivening the opening. The other three are Andre (Denzel Whitaker, Back to School Mom), Junior (Keean Johnson, Low Tide) and Miracle (Demetrius Shipp Jr., All Eyez on Me), each with his own reason for engaging in what follows. First, though, there is the big celebration, with Blink joining bride Demyra (Kat Graham, Emperor) in matrimony, their young son looking on. Everyone is happy, and then Katrina hits.
RZA wastes little time on the destruction, though he does treat us to archival footage of the event. He’s more interested in how our characters struggle to make ends meet in the aftermath. A talented writer and artist with a graphic novel, the eponymous “Cut Throat City,” in the works, Blink is rejected for a job at a downtown agency (by an established white artist whom he heretofore had admired) in a humiliating interview, and then is similarly denied FEMA reparations. With the rest of the crew in no better straights, they makes the first of many bad decisions by visiting Blink’s wife’s cousin Bass (T.I., Krystal), who has set himself up as a local kingpin, living it up in a FEMA trailer and meting out justice to any who oppose his rule. Soon, they are off to a local casino, guns in hand, for what should be an easy score. Is it ever, in these kinds of films?
At just over two hours, Cut Throat City could benefit from some serious trimming. There is nothing one can do to do, however, about the operatic ambitions that lead it down the path of sluggish theatrics, involving a former-cop-turned-city-councilman played by Ethan Hawke (The Truth), a current police detective (whom he bullies) played by Eiza González (Baby Driver) and a local crime boss, who goes by “The Saint” (his headquarters are in a church), played by Terrence Howard (Cardboard Boxer). There are many more characters, incidental and otherwise, lost in the morass of increasingly tragic consequences, some interesting, others less so.
By the end, the energy of the first half has almost entirely dissipated in the self-importance of the monologuing (and, when Hawke and Howard get together, dialoguing). We do care about everyone’s fate, early on, but later, despite the real-world desperation in which the story is grounded, it becomes hard to remember that initial emotional investment. A fakeout of an ending does not help, holding out two possibilities of what the entire affair has actually been about. It’s not a total loss, by any means, but is a mild disappointment.