Cut Throat City

Directed By RZA

Starring – Shameik Moore, T.I, Demetrius Shipp Jr

The Plot – The story of four boyhood friends in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward who return after Hurricane Katrina to find their homes decimated, with no jobs, and no help from FEMA. Out of options, they reluctantly turn to a local gangster, who offers them one shot at turning their situations around by pulling off a dangerous heist in the heart of the city. When the job goes bad, the friends find themselves on the run, hunted by two relentless detectives and a neighborhood warlord who thinks they stole the heist money.

Rated R for violence, pervasive adult language, drug content, some sexual material and nudity

POSITIVES

– Gifted ensemble. This is very much a deep-seeded cast of talented actors and actresses that combine a lot of raw energy and vibrant personalities to their respective roles. That starts and ends with Moore, whose self-reflective demeanor articulates a protagonist who repeatedly steals the captivation within each scene he shines through, supplanting no shortage of heart in between these sequences of surreal grittiness. Also reputable is a hotshot detective, played by Elza Gonzales, whose intensity offers a stark contrast to the group of four gentlemen feeling the concern for such a grim and consequential task. Gonzales’ character is not your typical cop in this setting, in that she cares for the safety of those she hunts, all the while understanding the politics of Louisiana and all of its racial motivations. T.I Harris also expands his resume with an antagonist role that is every bit seedy and sinister as it is maniacal and dangerous. Harris’ visual familiarity is still there, even under some convincing make-up scars that distort him slightly, but it’s his ability to lose himself in the evil of the role that truly defines transformation.

– Black respect. It has always been my opinion that black directors know better than anyone how to flesh out black characters, and with RZA’s commitment to character exposition, he illustrates minorities in a manner that very few directors capture with dignity. These are characters with hopes, dreams, ideas, and personalities captured with ample screen time. It’s especially important that none of them feel like stereotypes, but even more important than that; none of them rub together to feel repetitively unimportant to the benefit of the script. It gives a much-needed voice of awareness to a demographic that unfortunately is often used for background filler and nothing else, and solidifies so much of the movie’s social commentary with an angle devoted to those on the ground floor of New Orleans’ single biggest disaster in history.

– Katrina’s role. Speaking of said disaster in question, the film’s desire to include it as a pivotal piece in this developing plot is one that is perfectly translated in the mind and movements of the people who suffered through it. As a character of its own in the movie, New Orleans feels depleted and vulnerable for the taking, weathering through the many years of politics and crime that have ravaged the city to a shell of its former self. As a character in the movie says; “Katrina was here long before the storm”. This alludes to the idea that the city had problems long before the floods washed everything afloat, but beyond that it treats Katrina itself as an absolution of sorts that was intentionally manufactured by God to wash the sins of the city clean. A commentary on the state of the setting that not only motivates the four friends to pick it clean, but also fleshes out a dangerous environment where the law feels like underdogs in a place with so much mental toxicity for their home.

– RZA’s evolution. “Cut Throat City” is easily my favorite directing effort from the cherished Wu-Tang Clan member, if even just for the restraint in experimentation behind the lens that he maintains through two hours of masterful approach. On a visual spectrum, RZA does attempt some alluring feats, particularly in some beautiful long take revolving shots around a dinner table that visually conveys the balance of struggle between two characters. Even his action sequences carry a consistency of intensity and anxiety elaborated through some exceptional shaky camera direction that inspires without convoluting what is featured in depiction. Finally, it’s his tonal maturity that I appreciated most of all, learning from past mistakes that help accommodate this effort. There’s no inappropriate humor or distracting tonal contrasts that directly contradicts the attention of the plot, and for at least the first half of the film, the urgency conjured in this master plan coming to fruition feels resonant of a master storyteller with a future in this business.

– Star-studded cameos. I won’t reveal much here, as I would rather you guys experiment the big name appearances with the level of spontaneity that the screenplay drops them on us. However, I will say that one involving a politician in the movie is the most extreme case of against-type casting for this particular actor, and really allows him to show his range off further than he has in over a decade. Another one involves an MMA fighter who suffers through the worst version of walking the plank that I’ve ever seen, and the final one is fresh off of his biggest role as a music executive on a television show on Fox. What each of these does varies in creative benefits for the story, but cohesively supplants a big screen feel for the movie that has noticeably been missing from the cheap production values plaguing RZA’s films, making his name an attractive calling card for the big names in Hollywood who desire to work with him.

– High stakes. Perhaps the single highest praise that I can grant this movie is the mounting consequences that no character is safe from. This isn’t spoiling anything in the movie by saying this, but rather commending the movie for its element of unpredictability which has no reservations about switching things up at any given moment. This is established early on when one key character is dispatched in a moment so anticlimactic that it almost feels like an afterthought to the bigger struggle. This only increases the longer the film goes on, as the screenplay expresses on more than one occasion that no single character is bigger than the movie, preserving vulnerability in a way that dangerously echoes the many movements of life. It forces audiences to stay intrigued at all times, or the threat of missing a pivotal moment will come and go with such little emphasis, making this anything other than a forgettable effort in the lasting power within the minds of the audience.

NEGATIVES

– Violent shifts. One constant agitation within the complexity of the storytelling are these abrupt flashbacks, particularly during the first act, where the current narrative is put on pause to fill in the gaps of intrigue mentioned by characters in the foreground. If this happens once or twice, it can be forgiven as nothing more than a slight inconvenience, but this happens no fewer than four times within a half hour, over complicating what should be a straight and narrow path of exposition between character discussions. What’s even more frustrating is that nothing included ever feels necessarily pivotal to the complexion of the story, nor does it add anything additional to what was previously mentioned by characters in the current day. It’s really just an echoing to what was previously mentioned, and is the first of many dead weight scenes that I would cut to keep this script air tight.

– Too long. This film clocks in at just under two hours, and while much of the screenplay includes many complex themes and ideas not only in the film, but also in the social commentary of Katrina, that time is not warranted for how everything is approached. For one, there’s a lack of urgency in the film’s inferior second half that dooms this once compelling narrative to levels of boredom that it doesn’t deserve. Then there’s the abundance of derivative scenes that add nothing original or remotely unique to what is transpiring. The weight catches up to the film somewhere around the midway point, forcing it to (At times) feel twice of its allowed run time. For my money, I would’ve appreciated “Cut Throat City” to never exceed past the 95 minute mark. This would maintain the urgency within the narrative that goes out the window once the robbery takes shape, as well as provide a much needed second draft of the script which could cut what’s simply not needed.

– Problematic second half. As I previously mentioned, the first half of this movie is a beautifully constructed, expansively layered series of events that made this the crime drama film of the year. However, the consistency eventually wears thin, and leads towards a second and third act that brings forth a series of questionable creative decisions. The first is to deviate so strongly from the established protagonists within this group of four that have gotten us almost entirely to the halfway point. This film distances them in the rearview with a series of scenes that doesn’t include a single one of them, a separation that happens at the worst time possible, when we demand clarity. The next decision is the absence of action that doesn’t return until the film’s final twenty minutes. Considering this was marketed as an action-first movie, this is a bit of false advertising, and makes so much of the film’s resolution a dull, uphill climb that whimpers when it should bang.

– Confusing ending. Even as I sit here writing this review an hour after seeing the movie, I still can’t fully comprehend what happened during the film’s final minutes. This is going to be difficult to explain without spoilers, but I will try my best. An unbelievable plot twist takes shape through the eyes of our troubled protagonist. Not one that satisfyingly resonates to make you appreciate the film’s genius, but rather one that makes you scream “WTF?”. I think I picked up on what happened, but if that is the direction that this ending was attempting, a couple of things about character interaction doesn’t make sense about it, and convolutes the execution in the most unnecessary way possible. It almost feels tacked on for the way it directly contradicts every emotion earned from it prior to the twist, and finishes everything up with a pointless state of emphasis that does it no favors.

My Grade: 6/10 or C-

One thought on “Cut Throat City

  1. I saw that this was playing at the theaters near me but after reading your review, it’s not quite enough to get me to see it. I love it when a film can have a diverse cast and offer chances to African American directors who need more opportunities. However, based on how it utilizes its runtime as well as how you described the 2nd act, I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to see this one.

    Great job though!

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