Following his 2012 directorial debut, martial arts homage The Man With the Iron Fists, and 2017’s romantic musical drama Love Beats Rhymes, filmmaker, composer and producer RZA changes up genres once again for his third feature, a convoluted New Orleans-set heist pic.
Unfolding in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, RZA’s trenchant take on the synergistic interaction of poverty and greed gradually loses focus as it devolves into a familiar account of warring gangsters, corrupt politicians and a city struggling for redemption. Cut Throat City will doubtless grab the attention of RZA’s diverse fanbase, but looks unlikely to make a significant mark among contemporary crime dramas.
As a founding member and principal producer for legendary rap group Wu-Tang Clan, RZA’s transition to film and TV begin with small acting roles in indie releases. Dozens of composing credits followed, perhaps most notably on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. I. That relationship informs the movie’s opening scene, as a group of young Black men debate the relative merits of Reservoir Dogs and The Godfather prior to arriving at the New Orleans nuptials of Blink (Shameik Moore, The Pretenders, Dope) and Demyra (Kat Graham).
As the epic storm inexorably bears down on the Gulf Coast, the couple weds in a simple backyard ceremony, surrounded by Blink’s best friends and groomsmen, Junior (Keean Johnson), Miracle (Demetrius Shipp Jr.) and Andre (Denzel Whitaker). Quickly forced to shelter at home with their young son as the hurricane rages through the region, Blink and Demyra finally emerge to find the city devastated in its wake.
Brief newsreel footage of the storm raking through the city and scenes of the deadly flooding and devastation left in its wake inadvertently highlight the filmmakers’ limited efforts to convincingly replicate that historic destruction with a few shots of damaged homes and inundated streets. A similar degree of carelessness undercuts P.G. Cuschieri’s script, which soon drifts away from the central characters to consider a sprawling web of corruption involving city councilman Jackson Symms (Ethan Hawke), a dirty cop (Rob Morgan) and a gangland boss known as “The Saint” (Terrence Howard).
These career criminals exist several rungs above the now jobless Blink, who attempts to market his considerable skills as a graphic artist, but faces rejection at every turn. The other guys aren’t doing any better, so they reluctantly turn to local gang boss Cousin (rapper and reality star Tip “T.I.” Harris), who agrees to handle the takings from any major caper that they can pull off. Even though they lack a coherent plan, the four manage to haphazardly rip off a downtown casino, but the consequences of their hit prove especially dire when Andre dies in a shootout with the local cops.
Cousin immediately rejects the remaining trio’s meager haul of cash and non-negotiable gaming chips, leaving them facing an intensifying police investigation, led by young career climber Lucy Valencia (Eiza Gonzalez). Their only option appears to be taking refuge on the city’s rural outskirts with Blink’s father Lawrence (Wesley Snipes), a chronic recluse who’s not so thrilled to see his estranged son.
Snipes is just one of the outstanding actors that the film slots into generic supporting roles that appear more decorative than essential. Hawk’s troubled, alcoholic widower and Howard as the city’s philosophical gang leader also get short shrift, but at least they lend some heavyweight drama to their scenes.
Moore’s Blink is the film’s pensive protagonist, bringing an unexpected degree of self-reflection to a role that easily could have been far more rote. As a female cop confronting relentlessly toxic masculinity at almost every turn, Gonzalez (Baby Driver, Bloodshot) tends to overplay somewhat, although her focused intensity impresses.
Robert F. Diggs, aka RZA, plays the action straight down the middle, delivering a serviceable crime drama that’s largely devoid of the stylistic flourishes characteristic of the filmmakers he’s so fond of name-checking. There’s another, more intriguing, drama buried in Cuschieri’s overstuffed script, one with the potential to seize upon the decades of systemic racism and entrenched bias that exacerbated the economic impacts of Katrina on New Orleans’ communities of color.
A decade ago, when development first began on the project, perhaps the filmmakers couldn’t be expected to anticipate the consequential historical moment that the nation now confronts — or leverage the opportunity to amplify issues that are currently at the forefront of an unprecedented cultural reckoning.
Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment (available on-demand August 21)
Production companies: Patriot Pictures, Rumble Riot Pictures, XYZ Films
Cast: Shameik Moore, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Demetrius Shipp Jr., Kat Graham, Keean Johnson, Denzel Whitaker, Eiza Gonzalez, Rob Morgan, Wesley Snipes, Terrence Howard, Ethan Hawke
Screenwriter: P.G. Cuschieri
Producers: William Clevinger, Sean Lydiard, Michael Mendelsohn, Elliott Michael Smith, Kyle Tekiela, Robert F. Diggs, Michael Mendelsohn
Executive producers: Natalie Perrotta, Jim Steele, Nate Bolotin, Nick Spicer, Aram Tertzakian, P.G. Cuschieri, Jon Levin
Director of photography: Brandon Cox
Production designer: Nate Jones
Costume designer: Gina Ruiz
Editor: Joe D’Augustine
Music: Dhani Harrison, Paul Hicks
Casting director: Michelle Lewitt
Rated R, 134 minutes