CUT THROAT CITY movie poster | ©2020 Well Go USA Entertainment

CUT THROAT CITY movie poster | ©2020 Well Go USA Entertainment

Rating: R
Stars: Shameik Moore, Demetrius Shipp Jr., Keean Johnson, Denzel Whitaker, Eiza Gonzalez, Kat Graham, T.I., Rob Morgan, Ethan Hawke, Wesley Snipes, Terrence Howard
Writer: P.G. Cuschieri
Director: The RZA
Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment
Release Date: August 21, 2020

CUT THROAT CITY starts with a lively animated opening credits sequence, with bloody comic book art of black workers vs. KKK members. At the end of the sequence, we discover this actually is the CUT THROAT CITY graphic novel, created by James, aka Blink (Shameik Moore), who is showing his new work to his brother Miracle (Demetrius Shipp Jr.) and their lifelong friends Junior (Keean Johnson) and Andre (Denzel Whitaker).

The four young men are residents of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina has done its worst. Things were already pretty bad in the area before the storm, but now no one can find work. After having his CUT THROAT CITY rejected by a comic book house, James is fed up. Musicians Miracle and Andre can’t make a living either, and Junior is down with whatever the others want to do.

James is newly married to Demyra (Kat Graham), with whom he has a toddler son. James decides to provide for his family by offering to work for “Cousin” Bass (T.I.), a local gangster. This not only sets James and Co. on the course of robbing casinos, but it puts them in the crosshairs of a local gang skirmish, the police, and a politician (Ethan Hawke) who doesn’t want business and tourists being scared away.

CUT THROAT CITY isn’t shy about its ambitions. The screenplay by P.G. Cuschieri name-checks both THE GODFATHER and Quentin Tarantino almost as soon as the characters begin speaking. (There’s a meta-riff about whether there should be a cap on how often the N-word should be used in dialogue, especially when the writer is white.) However, it doesn’t have the sprawling reach of the former, nor the poetry and twists of the latter. The story is fairly straightforward, with our heroes getting into trouble, and then trying various paths to extricate themselves.

Moore is a solid central figure. Rob Morgan has fun as a colorful, extremely corrupt cop, and Wesley Snipes registers in his few scenes as James’s upright father.

Director The RZA stages the robberies and shootouts with a sense of immediacy. We can feel the fear and adrenaline of everyone involved.

The filmmakers are on somewhat shakier ground when they have people talking. The dialogue itself sounds natural enough, but we’re treated to conspiracy theories about Katrina and self-justification for the robberies.

We sympathize with the fact that the young men cannot find legal paying employment, and CUT THROAT CITY has valid observations about how racism and classism make this virtually impossible. However, the group’s aggression towards civilians, even when it turns lethal, is brushed off. Nobody seems to have any misgivings about what they’re doing, except for the potential consequences (getting jailed or shot) and we spend no time with the victims. For people unused to violent crime, James, Miracle, Junior, and Andre all seem to take to it with uncommon ease, not only in ability, but in absorbing what they’re doing without notable pangs of conscience. This feels unrealistic, on top of being somewhat off-putting.

Since CUT THROAT CITY invites the comparison at the top, the following should be considered. THE GODFATHER was honest about the moral failings of its protagonists, and when Tarantino gives us robbers, he gives them dimension, but he also understands they’re being brutal. CUT THROAT CITY wants us to side with James’s moral outrage, without giving him the dimension to make this work.

The movie is well-made, and it has momentum, but it doesn’t have the kind of detail in characters or events to make it entirely memorable.

Viewers should be mindful that there’s a substantial scene partway through the end credits that factors into the plot.

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