By: Anthony Francis
Using a genre film to make a potent and timely statement on the institutional failings of the Katrina disaster (and of the country itself when it comes to the Black community) is the unique path RZA walks with his current film Cut Throat City.
The RZA’s first directorial effort, 2012’s The Man with the Iron Fists was an exciting throwback to the Martial Arts films of the 1970s. RZA showed a flair for action and a good story. Hell, he even got Russell Crowe to costar and give a rather great performance.
His second film as director, 2017 Love Beats Rhymes, was a well-directed character piece/musical about a poet trying to find her true voice. RZA proved he could handle a human drama.
For his latest film, RZA returns to his action roots but infuses the film with some stark characterizations and pointed messages that one doesn’t usually find in an action thriller, offering up his own unique vision on the offensive and botched “recovery”.
Cut Throat City is about four friends whose lives (and the lives of everyone in their city and state) have been directly affected by Hurricane Katrina.
The Ninth Ward is a devastated area of hopelessness. Everyone has turned their back on the area from President Bush to FEMA, whose very existence is to help everyone who has lost their livelihoods due to the storm. As history has recorded, FEMA and the United States government failed everyone affected by the hurricane.
Shameik Moore stars as “Blink”, a budding cartoonist who sees more for himself and his new wife and their child. Day by day, he sees his dreams becoming farther and farther out of reach.
His three friends, Andre (Denzel Whitaker), Junior (KeeanJohnson), and Miracle (Demetrius Shipp Jr.) are in the same boat.
Miracle sells drugs but sees his minuscule profits even more marginalized by his bosses. Junior raises an attack dog who he comes to love and struggles with how to improve his life. And André Dreams of being a Jazz trumpeter and playing in his beloved New Orleans with his own quartet.
Blink has the idea of going to a ruthless local criminal named “Cousins” (played by rapper T.I. in one helluva great performance!) to make some real money and save them all from ruin.
Cousins gives them a job indeed. They are to rob a local casino during full-on business hours. If they succeed, they will prove their worth to Cousins and be awarded bigger and higher paying (albeit illegal) tasks. As the rules of the Crime Thriller teaches us, the heist must go wrong, and so it does. After a dust up with Cousins over the money, Blink and his crew go on the run with both the law and the criminal side of the Ninth Ward coming after them.
These aspects of the film’s plot are done well enough, but we have been here a thousand times before. The whole “What have we done and what the Hell do we do now?” motif has been done to death in heist films. But this is where RZA proves that his film is more than that. Much more, as there is a deeper story held within the heist film framework that gives the film its true fire.
Eliza Gonzales is a detective who is onto the young men’s crimes and hot on their trail. On her investigation she begins to unravel something more sinister that is brewing much too close to home.
Ethan Hawke is pure excellence as “Jackson Symms”, a former crooked cop who is now an uber-crooked city councilman who wants the case solved quickly so not to upset his upcoming real estate deals. His get rich quick scheme is to sell the property for cheap as the city rebuilds itself. All he must do is keep the crime down.
Symms is manipulating the local police and has them in his pocket, and an undercover officer posing as a drug dealer (a frighteningly good Rob Morgan) is his street muscle.
Into this mix comes “The Saint” played by Terence Howard. The character is the ruler of the major drug trade in the area. A religious man who quotes scripture in his makeshift church while on the other side of the wall, topless women cut, measure, and package his cocaine for distribution.
It is in these side stories of Symms and The Saint where RZA and screenwriter Paul Cuschieri find the film’s power and shine a light on the inner corruption that causes the societal break down that leads many a young man to crime. RZA rightfully shows the systemic racism flowing through the police and politicians that feeds into the suppression of the black neighborhoods and the economic destruction of their communities.
As an actor, Terence Howard does so much with his eyes. His Paul Newman baby- blues have served him well over the years. They can be welcoming. They can be seductive. In this film, they are dangerous. His tone is soft, and his demeanor is cloaked in pleasantry. But make no mistake, The Saint is an ironic moniker. Mess with his cash flow or bring heat down on his business and this saint will become sinner without blinking an eye. Terence Howard gives his best performance since his Oscar-nominated turn in 2005’s Hustle and Flow. He only has a few scenes but is striking work.
Ethan Hawke proves his worth film after film and here he continues his trajectory to solidify himself as one if our best and most risk-taking character actors. There is a scene where he has a conversation with his dead wife, as he sits at her gravesite drinking whiskey, smoking a cigar, and trying to rationalize allthe evil deeds he has done. This is a performance that is on fire.
Wesley Snipes has a few good moments as Blink’s father. It is nice to see the actor acting again. His character is not part of the major action but plays a big part in the film’s moral center.
Shameik Moore does great work as well, making Blink a relatable character who is neither hero nor villain. We sympathize as much as we shake our finger at him for his bad choices. But we never judge. He has been pushed into an economic corner that we could never imagine. It is marvelous work from this talented young actor.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the cast does not fare as well. Denzel Whitaker and Keean Johnson aren’t given enough dialogue for us to invest in their characters while Demetrius Shipp Jr. is one note and can’t bring about the dramatic restraint required for his character. The actor seems to fumble around until his performance renders his character a mere cliche.
Eiza Gonzalez seems a bit lost in her role as well. The actress tries but just cannot bring off the hardened detective who has balls bigger than most of the hardcore street cops in NewOrleans. It is an earnest performance, but Gonzalez seems a bit out of her depth on the role.
The screenplay is one that frustrated me but ultimately won me over by film’s end.
All the moments with Blink and his crew have a false ring to them. Their improvised moments are obviously scripted and ring false with bad dialogue trying to pass for naturalism.
But again, I commend the screenplay for its deep dive into the city’s corruption and the dialogue given to all of the side characters is rather phenomenal and give actors such as Hawke and Howard a well-written buffet of great monologues. I wish the same courtesy had been given to the film’s main cast.
Brandon Cox’s cinematography is crisp and does what few films seem to get right, it captures the essence of New Orleans. Footage of the post Katrina area is perfectly blended with shots of bodegas, makeshift trailers, and the desolate streets that are a visual monument to the failure of the response to Katrina.
RZA films the action sequences with an urgency and fury that lends itself to the predicament Blink and his crew find themselves in. Fans of action certainly will not be disappointed.
Imperfections and all, by film’s end, Cut Throat City is entertaining while being potent and somewhat moving.
For a modern action film to be able to entertain while keeping the focus on its message is a major feat. My hat is off to RZA who, with only three feature films as director, is a filmmaker to admire.
About The Author: A long-time film connoisseur and son to a father who ran a movie theater, Anthony Francis rightfully grew up to be a journalist, filmmaker, writer, and film reviewer. His latest reviews/interviews/articles can be found at screencomment.com