“Cut Throat City” is a colorful but uneven crime drama which alternatively engaged and frustrated me. While it is mostly watchable thanks to its diverse array of cast members and a palpable sense of locations and people, it is frequently hampered by thin characterization and unfocused storytelling, and it is also often distracting due to several heavy-handed moments which do not fit that well with its overall result.
The movie, which is set in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2006, mainly revolves around four different young residents of a poor neighborhood of the 9th ward in New Orleans: Blink (Shameik Moore), Miracle (Demetrius Shipp Jr.), Andre (Denzel Whitaker), and Junior (Keean Johnson). During the prologue part in early 2005, Blink is about to become the husband of his longtime girlfriend Demyra (Kat Graham), and their following wedding ceremony is cheerfully blessed by his three close friends. As Blink and his friends enjoy the party right after the wedding ceremony, everything feels fine and well to them, and it looks like nothing bad will happen to them in the upcoming future.
However, of course, Hurricane Katrina strikes New Orleans several months later, and we subsequently see how desperate things have been to them and many others in their neighborhood. Blink, who once studied art in a local college and has aspired to be a professional comic book writer someday as reflected by the opening animation sequence, has tried to find any possible breakthrough for his artistic talent, but his latest attempt is flatly rejected to his frustration, and it seems he and Demyra will have to try to get some help from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), though he is skeptical about whether they will get real help for them and their little son.
In case of his friends, they are all in each own difficult financial circumstance. While Miracle has struggled a lot in his small-time drug business which was considerably damaged by the hurricane, Andre, who wants to be a successful jazz musician someday, has mostly depended on his hard-working mother without earning that much for him and his mother, and Junior, who is incidentally the only Caucasian in the bunch, has trained a dog to be used for those underground dog fights.
As they talk about their hopeless economic situations, Blink and his three friends are reminded again of how much they and many others in the 9th ward have been disregarded and discriminated by their society and its corrupt system, so they decide to come to Lorenzo “Cousin” Bass (Tip “T.I.” Harris), a powerful local drug lord who will gladly give them a certain quick job. He instructs them to rob a certain big casino in their neighborhood, and it seems that all they have to do is breaking into that casino and then snatching enough cash for them besides what they should pay to Bass later.
Not so surprisingly, Blink and his friends’ amateurish attempt to rob that casino leads to a devastating consequence, and the circumstance becomes a lot more complicated as some other characters enter the picture. When she is instructed to handle the case by a local councilman played by Ethan Hawke, Detective Lucinda Benoit (Eiza González) senses something fishy about the case, and her suspicion is increased more after she meets a corrupt local cop named Courtney (Rob Morgan), who has been blatantly getting away with numerous illegal activities including his close connection with Bass and another infamous local criminal figure nicknamed “The Saint” (Terrence Howard).
Now chased by not only the local police but also Bass and his criminal associates, Blink and his friends try to find any possible way out, and they naturally become driven to some desperate measures, but the movie fails to generate enough tension to engage us as trying to juggle a little too many elements together. In several scenes involved with Blink’s estranged father played by Wesley Snipes, the movie brings some extra local flavor via his shabby residence located in a remote rural area, but it only comes to stumble in its predictable depiction of their strained relationship. During its last act, the screenplay by Paul Cuschieri, who also served as one of the executive producers of the film, attempts a rather jarring left turn, but the result feels so highly stylized that we are not so surprised by what follows next while not caring much about its main characters.
Anyway, director/co-producer RZA and his crew members including cinematographer Brandon Cox did a fairly good job of establishing the distinctively realistic local atmosphere on the screen. Though most of the characters in the film are more or less than broad archetypes in the need of more character development, the main cast members are mostly convincing while really looking like they have inhabited their neighborhood for years, and Tip “T.I.” Harris, Terrence Howard, Rob Morgan, and Ethan Hawke get the most fun in each own way as we can expect from their colorfully shady supporting roles.
On the whole, “Cut Throat City” is disappointing for a number of glaring weak points, but it is at least two or three steps up from RZA’s first feature film “The Man with the Iron Fists” (2012), which has some amusingly campy moments but ultimately lets itself mired in mediocre self-indulgence without much control or consideration on story and characters. He demonstrates more skill and competence than before here in this film, so I guess he will probably show progress and improvement in next time.