Review: ‘Cut Throat City’

After a short delay while movie theaters realign themselves to prepare for the new age of sterilized movie going and sharp-eyed/reluctant glances towards every cough in a six-foot radius, prodigious musician, producer, writer, and general cultural figure RZA’s (Robert Fitzgerald Diggs of The Wu-Tang Clan) new film Cut Throat City will finally be released this week.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s quite worth the extended wait. At once a laborious crime film that stews in its Louisiana atmosphere and feels like something frankensteined together from a variety of other like minded efforts, it’s also a film enamored with macho posturing and hot-tempered dialogue that only seems to rise as it progresses, which makes the effort that much more rote in its characterizations.

Part of the film’s driving anger is rightfully placed, however. Taking place during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we’re introduced to a group of 4 friends reuniting for a wedding. Played by Shameik Moore, Demetrius Shipp Jr, Denzel Whitaker and Keean Johnson, their attempts at normal life (and in the case of Moore a career as a talented artist) are dashed for various reasons. With no help around in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, the group of friends are roped into the clutches of a local drug dealer and slowly drawn into his web of corruption and violence.

Circling the four and their increasingly hopeless grasps for something honest is a detective (Eiza Gonzales) and a shady ex-politician (Ethan Hawke) who speaks in such a Shakesperian-laden tone that his (thankfully) short appearances often stops Cut Throat City dead in its tracks. Likewise for Terence Howard, who plays a local kingpin figure known as The Saint. Like Hawke, his is a small role that sees him preen around, seething with quiet macabre that’s supposed to be unsettling but comes off as pretentious.

Juggling all these characters, Cut Throat City eventually loses its drive and devolves into cliche violence begetting violence. Unlike last year’s Queen and Slim that poses some of the same candid reverberations about racial inequality and a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like middle-finger-to-America saga of promising livelihoods gone wrong, RZA’s film lacks the nuance that made Melina Matsoukas’ film so incisive.

Most of the problem, however, lies in the script by Paul Cuschieri. Every character is overwritten and flourished from previous films. Gonzales’ tough-as-nails cop walks and talks like Al Pacino in Heat (1995). Hawke and Howard are allusions to the invisible gumbo ghosts of New Orleans’ conflicted past, represented in everything from Treme (2010) to Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil (1997). Even while giving distinctive performances, Moore, Shipp Jr, Whitaker and Johnson ultimately flare out as characters because most of the film is focused on everything but them, which erases the people we’re supposed to care about, no matter how reprehensible their actions get.

As Hawke and Howard ruminate in one scene, they single-handedly created the famous aura of New Orleans before nature washed it away. Unfortunately, Cut Throat City fails to frame any of that allure in its crime-laden saga of good hopes turned bad.

Well Go USA will release the film theatrically on 300 screens on August 21.

Check local listings for showtimes and open theaters.