While he will always be known for his music career, RZA has established himself as an inspired voice in the film industry. Along with scoring memorable character actor parts (Funny People and American Gangster), the Wu-Tang Clan legend has established a visceral voice behind the director’s chair.
RZA’s debut (the hokey, but enjoyable Man with the Iron Fist) playfully conjures Wu-Tang’s kung-fu sensibility, while his follow-up (the overlooked Love Beats Rhymes) offers an emotionally-charged depiction of an aspiring rapper. Both efforts, while admittedly flawed, display a sharp and personal perspective, a foundation RZA ably builds upon with his latest endeavor Cut Throat City. While shaggy in its wide-eyed ambition, this heist-drama packs a potent thematic punch alongside its pulpy elements.
Cut Throat City follows four boyhood friends from New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward (Shameik Moore, Demetrius Shipp Jr., Denzel Whitaker, and Keean Johnson) who return after Hurricane Katrina to decimated homes, 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.
While the plot employs several heist movie cliches, screenwriter P.G. Cuschieri introduces an inspired narrative crux to center his devices around. The Hurricane Katrina zeitgeist isn’t an empty ploy, with Cuschieri utilizing the setting to confront the growing class divide pushing improvised communities away from a prosperous future. This is well-trudged territory, but RZA and Cuschieri seem well-aware of its circular nature. They wisely frame their narrative through the anvils of history and folklore, connecting the distinctly modern struggles to a lifetime of inequality. At it’s best, this well-flavored approach reaches grand and oftentimes poetic sentiments, presenting generational conceits through RZA’s alluring visual lens (his saturation of colors and kinetic framing leave a strong impression).
Cut Throat City’s massive cast features a bounty of assured performances. Most of them range from dramatically sincere turns (Shameik Moore and Demetrius Shipp Jr. display solid acting chops) to downright campy showcases (T.I., Terrance Howard, and Ethan Hawke chew the scenery with an infectious glee). This electric mixture would be tonally confused in the wrong hands, but RZA’s deft handling blends these elements cohesively. He meshes pulpy thrills with genuine dramatic steaks, thoughtfully building dimension for the film’s four underdog figures to flourish with.
Similar to RZA’s previous efforts, Cut Throat City presents itself in a shaggy final form. Cuschieri’s thematic ambitions often clash with the jam-packed narrative, as the massive rogue’s gallery of characters distract from the script’s finite thesis (Eiza Gonzalez has nothing to do as a straight-laced cop). New subplots are introduced at a nonstop pace in the second half, bloating a web of threads that Cuschieri never gets complete hold of. I also wish RZA refined the film’s focus, with our affable leads taking a backseat role in the second half to the grander plot elements.
That being said, Cut Throat City‘s falterings still register a certain earnestness, with RZA and company displaying a bold roller coaster ride that cleverly subverts genre conventions. It’s encouraging to see continued growth from RZA onscreen, and I can’t see what the star has in store next for audiences.
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