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It’s a timely movie that comes out swinging, but Cut Throat City doesn’t balance the rage with logic and a strong enough through line to redemption.

Warning Before Destruction

Surviving in the lower Ninth
Surviving in the lower Ninth

No time is wasted in creating an intense environment. The opening credits are set against the backdrop of a graphic novel in which white men are cast as zombies attacking black men. Then a discussion begins about the work — it’s a graphic novel created by Blink (Shameik Moore, Hulu’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga). His friends are among his toughest critics. It’s too violent, they say. It uses the “N” word too many times. It’s too Tarantino; Reservoir Dogs is overrated. (Consider the last bit a stab at tension-defusing humor; Quentin Tarantino presented RZA’s feature directorial debut, The Man with the Iron Fists.)

They’re longtime buds trying to survive in post-Katrina New Orleans. Blink’s a Tulane graduate; he’s educated and talented. But he’s also a black man stuck in the Ninth Ward and he’s underwater in more ways than one.

With a son to care for and a wedding on the horizon, Blink’s weighed down by a life with limited options. A publisher dismisses his work, entitled Cut Throat City, as too derivative. His friends are similarly stranded.

Then they enter the brutal world of gangland crime and hustles, finding themselves indebted to a thug named “Cousin” Bass (Tip T.I. Harris, Ant-Man and the Wasp). His is a sordid world in which raccoon fighting is a source of entertainment and raccoons are also a skilled source for castration services.

While the guys had little upward movement before their deal with the devil’s “Cousin,” things go downhill rapidly when their gun-toting raid on a casino nets too little cash and a dead friend.

Hypocrisy and Corruption

Cut Throat City isn’t the kind of movie that honestly looks for answers. It is, at its core, still much more Tarantino than Stone or Scorsese. Corruption is everywhere and is color blind. FEMA, the police, NOLA city council, pastors, casino operators, neighborhood thugs — there are guilty parties everywhere. And with all those sources of distress come plenty of conspiracy theories to pour gas on the fire.

And that’s where Cut Throat City both finds and strays away from a rich vein of material.

After the jarring opening scenes and raccoon action, the movie settles into an interesting crime caper in which Blink and his buddies rob a casino, only to face a group of armed police officers during the getaway. But it’s later revealed they weren’t actual officers, rather yet another group of criminals impersonating police officers. That’s where there’s a multi-layered richness to the possibilities; alas, it’s merely a throw-away story element that’s abandoned as Lucinda Valencia (Eiza Gonzalez, Baby Driver) tackles the Inspector Javert approach to the relentless pursuit of justice.

This marks the first new theatrical release in months — alongside Russell Crowe’s equally timely tale, Unhinged. The world has changed so much in a scant few months thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also with social justice measures sweeping across the United States, with shockwaves felt around the globe. Of course, Cut Throat City was filmed long before any of those events coalesced in the summer of 2020, but those events also serve to inform Cut Throat City’s shortcomings as its own vehicle for social change.

No Place Like Home

Here’s where Cut Throat City works: it sports an impressive cast that includes veteran name brands like Ethan Hawke, Wesley Snipes and Terrence Howard. Added to the mix are some fresh new faces, including Moore, T.I. and Gonzalez, along with Demetrius Shipp Jr. (All Eyez on Me) and others. The cast is terrific.

Behind the scenes, RZA is a formidable talent. As a musician, he co-founded the hip hop collective Wu-Tang Clan. As a filmmaker, he’s demonstrated a flair for the visual. But, ultimately, the problem lies in the story selection and the storytelling. The Man with the Iron Fists was a truly derivative work, both written and directed by RZA, closely following the cookie-cutter schlock pattern of Tarantino, Eli Roth and Robert Rodriguez.

With Cut Throat City (scripted by feature first-timer Paul Cuschieri), RZA had a chance to do something significant, something that could truly leverage his “Zen and martial arts of the mind” philosophies set in the aftermath of Katrina. Instead, early on, there’s a rather witty (and unexpected) reference to The Wizard of Oz that is reprised later in the movie. It turns into an awkward dance to go from an ultra-violent setting to something that uses “no place like home” as a purifying mantra. It trivializes the trauma, especially given the reprise is made by a pastor (of sorts) who has topless ladies packaging up drugs in a back room while he advises Blink and his buddies to click their heels and make their way back to the unfriendly confines of the lower Ninth.

Ultimately, there’s a certain amount of hypocrisy driving the movie itself. Many of the grievances are completely legitimate, but some of the sentiments merely fuel an agenda-driven narrative that seems to cop-out on its own ambitions.