It’s an oddly catchy sound, a persistent noise coming from boomboxes and car stereos. Almost no one in “Cut Throat City,” the latest crime/gangster flick from legendary hip hop producer/turned filmmaker RZA, comments on it, but we know they hear it and we know what it symbolizes. It’s the sound of rap music on repeat, lingering in the air like a thick, inescapable haze of gun smoke.
RZA helped revolutionize this sound in Staten Island, New York, where he co-founded and performed with the group “Wu-Tang Clan” and changed rap forever. Not surprisingly, “Cut Throat City” is a product of RZA’s voice, highlighting his social awareness and raw, deep, in-your-face delivery. What is surprising is how scattered the film is. Like a rapper without flow, “Cut Throat City” lacks the oomph to keep audiences engaged.
The film stars Shameik Moore, Denzel Whitaker, Keean Johnson, and Demetrius Shipp Jr. as Blink, Andre, Junior, and Miracle, respectively, who try to keep their heads above water in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The cards are stacked against them, with Hurricane Katrina drowning the area in debt and stirring a maelstrom of crime. Their neighborhood provides a palpable sense of danger.
Blink is getting married to Demyra (Kat Graham), a warm, yet hesitant girl living a few blocks away. She’s troubled because she knows marrying a local boy means a difficult life, and because her cousin, a gangster named Bass (T.I.), threatens to make things even more complicated. When Blink is rejected for a FEMA check and an art job, he is forced to call up Bass for work. Within minutes, Blink and his friends are at Bass’ home, a trailer park armed with guards, snarling dogs, and half-naked women, where they are then told to rob a casino. “One and done,” Blink tells the boys. “We are taking back what’s ours.”
“Cut Throat City” is a modern-day heist flick rooted in the sociopolitical issues of the day: racism, police brutality, and a tangible sense of anger at our political system. Along with screenwriter Paul Cuschieri, RZA imagines an amplified version of our world, where criminals are Robin Hoods and heists are easy, without the need for all of the “Oceans 11” razzle-dazzle. The caper, however, is interrupted by a shootout, but the boys drive off with few bullet holes and lots of cash. Mission accomplished, right? Nope—there’s still another hour of gangsters, conspiracies, and double-crossings to go.
Unfortunately, “Cut Throat City” is entirely overstuffed. Everything outside of the main plot feels unnecessary and conforms to common film cliches in the world of crime and hip hop-flecked gang movies: the kingpin with a temper, the corrupt official with a change of heart, etc., etc. It’s a disappointing waste of an all-star cast that includes Rob Morgan, Wesley Snipes, Terrence Howard, Ethan Hawke, Rich Paul, and Isaiah Washington. One of the few female speaking parts belongs to Eiza Gonzalez, playing a cop who picks up the breadcrumbs the crew leaves behind (dead bodies, poker chips at a strip club). She went to school with Blink and wants to help. The most gratitude he can muster is shutting the door in her face.
Other than Gonzalez, the only other characters audiences will connect with are Blink, Andre, Junior, and Miracle; they’re good guys forced into a bad situation as a result of poverty, so it’s understood why they put on black hoodies and go on a crime spree, and why, when stealing enough money to leave New Orleans, they return to their families. The problem with “Cut Throat City” is there’s too much going on. RZA has a real understanding of the heist genre, on display with the film’s textures and camerawork, but he stumbles when he tries to do too much. There’s no need to establish Hawke’s politician or Howard’s kingpin as larger-than-life personas. It’s an unnecessary distraction, especially while you compare what’s on-screen to the realism perfected in RZA’s own music.
The album “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” released in 1993, is a timeless piece of art—its kung-fu references and soul samples are unlike any wave or movement that came before or since. The lyrics about youngsters, broke and jobless, resorting to gang activity are writ large in “Cut Throat City.” What’s missing is the same energy and focus. Yes, rap can be heard in the background of nearly every frame, but you can’t help but wish RZA would turn up the volume. [C-]
“Cut Throat City” will be in select theaters on August 21.