This review contains spoilers for Cut Throat City.
Cut Throat City has the feel of an epic journey. One bolstered by the lyrical dialogue and the gothic scenery of New Orleans 9th Ward post-Katrina. It’s not the “gangster” story that the movie trailer promises, but more of a hero’s journey that is all too real for those of us who had creator dreams as little badass kids from the block, back in the day. Director RZA tells a story of Blink (played by Shameik Moore), a Blerd cartoonist who has a dream of being an artist but cannot catch a break long enough to make it happen. Blink’s buddies are worse off. Miracle (Demetrius Shipp Jr.) is homeless, Junior (Keean Johnson) is aimless, and Andre (Denzel Whitaker) has musical dreams that can’t carry themselves anywhere. They all want to break free, raise enough money to move up, but not out, of the 9th Ward.
The 9th Ward is their home.
Home is the theme to watch out for throughout the film. In a roundtable interview with the African American Film Critics Association, RZA explained that “home” is the underlying theme of the film. He says, “I think you’ll notice the “trying to get the home” theme, you know what I mean? The funny thing as a kid, you know, Wizard of Oz is always like holiday favorite, right? It would come on and the family would gather around the tv and you would watch Dorothy trying to get home. And [Blink’s] boys are trying to get home as well.”
The story follows Blink in his quest to “Do the Right Thing” and work, get FEMA assistance for the damage to their home, and slowly realize his dreams. He quickly finds that doing what’s right doesn’t work in the 9th Ward. That’s going to mean that his friends also never find home to call their own. The only recourse he has is to seek out the illicit aid of Cousin Bass (played by T.I.). Cousin Bass is Blink’s wife’s cousin, but he’s nobody’s best friend. In our introduction to this character, we are interrupting a punishment. Someone hasn’t paid Bass what he is owed. The consequence, Bass’s dog masticates the debtor’s “manhood”. Then, he turns to Blinks crew as if to ask, “do you lil boys really want to literally run with the big dogs.” Bass, in this fairy tale, is the Wicked Witch of the West.
Like a desperate hood dreamer, Blink is dumb and says yes. Then, Bass sends them on a mission that is foiled and then fumbled. A robbery that anther crew was doing the same night. The boys lose a man, but they can’t stop long. Their journey has begun. Everyone knows who the boys are and where they are from. Blink must find a way to get them home, before the cops, Bass, or someone else more sinister called the Saint has them shot dead. This journey home is a little harder to overcome. This Blerd won’t get home by clicking some shoes together.
Cut Throat City has the modern epic feel that has been explored by films like Oh Brother Where Art Thou. In that version of the hillbilly hero’s journey, the “misfits” meet with larger than life characters in grand spaces that either helps them advance on their journey, like the black guitar player looking for the crossroads so he can battle the Devil, or test them to see if they are worthy, like the sirens at the stream who lull the brothers asleep and rob them. In Cut Throat City, Blink and his squad are on sort of a hood hero’s journey. The larger than life characters either help them, like the villainous undertaker played by Isaiah Washington or test them to see if they are worthy, like Terrence Howard’s mythical character The Saint. Remember that the boys are just dreamers from a rough neighborhood. They are not prepared for any of this.
The spaces are just as grand and leave no mistake that this film is set in New Orleans. The Saint’s locale is a crack den inside a formerly grand church with French Catholic embellishments. Everything is glazed in the post-Katrina silt patina and moss that ads a touch of the uncanny gothic ambiance to the place. It befits this character whom Howard depicts as a sophisticate with sadist tendencies. The man is learned and tailored and seemingly in the wrong space. Just as we begin to believe that maybe RZA made a mistake in writing (and casting), The Saint’s inner sadist arrives on the scene and takes away all doubt.
If this journey is like the Wizard of Oz, then the person behind the wizard’s curtain pulling all the levers is Ethan Hawke’s character Jackson Sims. The former detective turned politician is the person who is pushing everyone to find an end to this problem. Or, maybe he is secretly the wicked witch and Detective Valencia (Eiza Gonzalez), who’s investigating the robbery, is his flying monkey out gathering intel and reporting back? Ultimately, these two are as embroiled in the boys’ fates as anyone else. All of these characters are either trying to kill the boys or get them home safe.
The film is very engaging, but there are a few plotlines that do fall off. The second team at the robbery is never identified for example. Another issue is the rushed sequences just before the boys meet up with The Saint. Their antics imply a dive into the deep end of the crime pool, but the boys are also still novices who spend loudly and without paying back their debt to the notorious Cousin Bass. They should be found and offered up to Bass’s dogs, but aren’t. Fortunately, these areas are easily overlooked as the story moves.
One of my favorite parts of this film is the dialogue, which RZA chalks up to his hip hop roots. Each character has a lyrical speak that is laced with knowledge of Katrina and NOLA history. Even Hawk at one point gives a riveting lesson on the flooding of the 9th Ward in a way that shows his character’s need to atone but also his fight with the greed that paid for his lifestyle. He knows how he got where he is, but he won’t go back. Instead, a good deed here and there should work, right? RZA revealed that TI actually created a lot of Cousin Bass’s dialogue, including the point where the musician dubs Blink’s squad with names from Oz. According to RZA
[TI] read the script, but he felt the same thing that I was feeling that this was a ‘trying to get home story’. And, he was like [in the scene to Blink and his friends] ‘your Dorothy, you’re the Scarecrow’. It was kind of magical when he brought those lines out of himself and added it to the story and the film, which was basically the undertone of the film.
Cut Throat City is not your average heist film. In addition to being an epic journey, the story begins and ends with a celebration of Black love that makes the perfect bookends to this story…until RZA’s pipe wrench of an ending comes in to play with your emotions. (Pay attention to the pencils.) The star-studded cast will keep you intrigued. Wesley Snipes is an oracle (of sorts) and Rob Morgan is a bounty hunter-type of character, both as mythical as the rest in this hood fairy tale. Audiences will find themselves entertained and wanting to watch again just to discover more.
Cut Throat City releases on streaming July 31.
Rating 4 of 5.