There’s a brief line said by T.I.’s Lorenzo “Cousin” Bass that contains more than just a slight meaning to the context of the moment in which it’s said. Cousin is speaking to the four leads — Blink (Shameik Moore), Miracle (Demetrius Shipp Jr.), Junior (Keenan Johnson), and Andre (Denzel Whitaker) — and makes a reference to their meeting being akin to Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man traveling to speak to the Wizard. Within L. Frank Baum’s story, the Wizard represents a rebirth or change for the characters, with Dorothy especially seeking a chance to return home. Theirs is a tale of adventure and wonder in a land of fantasy. For Blink and company, Cousin is not the friendly Wizard and what he offers comes with a terrible cost. Though not everything in the P.G. Cuschieri-written, RZA-directed crime drama Cut Throat City is quite so metaphorical, this tale of four friends trying to survive in a broken system has enough meat from the thematic elements to make the slightly complex narrative worth sticking it out for.
Its 2005 in New Orleans and Blink is marrying the love of his life, Demyra (Kat Graham), and is planning to provide for the two with his artistic ability. At his back are friends Miracle, Junior, and Andre, each with their own visions for what the future will bring, each looking past the horizon to some dream they can sense but not see. Then Hurricane Katrina hits, taking just about everything from their home, the 9th Ward, with it. With job opportunities dwindling, the foursome take a chance by going to local gangster Cousin for a job, understanding that failure can lead to horrific consequences. What Blink and his friends don’t account for is that Cousin isn’t the only one trying to run the 9th Ward and this job puts them smack dab in a war between a councilman, the police, and a greater gangster than Cousin.
Let me first address the elephant in the room: Moore is a talented actor, but after spending the last two years watching Into the Spider-Verse, there’s not a line of dialogue he delivers in this film in which I don’t think of Miles Morales. Certainly, as it’s demonstrated that Moore’s Blink is a talented artist, it was entirely easy to think of Cut Throat City as a more realistic take as a continuation of the budding wall-crawlers story. Despite possessing an Associate’s degree from Tulane University and a depth of knowledge about his craft, Blink is unable to sell his art to Joel David Moore’s (Avatar) nameless publisher for the only reason that matters: a perception of worthlessness. Blink is judged as never finishing college (corrected immediately) and told that his understanding of the comic industry is lacking (even though the answer comes directly from the publisher himself). This entire interaction, drafted by Cuschieri, captured by RZA, and executed by the actors highlights the terrible discrepancy which exists between the dream-seeking and the gatekeepers. How often do you think Blink played by the rules — went to school, got published, created a portfolio, learned from experts — and was still denied access? The speed with which he turns to Cousin for aid implies that, for people like Blink, the only way to rise above is to seek employment from those who prey on others, something which the script takes great pains to elucidate through multiple conversations throughout the film. It’s in this regard that the film’s subtext — racial tension, discrimination, poverty, government abandonment — becomes entirely text to a near-John-Cusack’s-Father-Mike-Corridan-in-Chi-Raq (2015) levels.
Where Cut Throat City really finds its teeth is in the frank depiction of oppression masked as community support which serves as the catalyst for the film. It’s present in Ethan Hawke’s Councilman Jackson Symms, who is so desperate to entice businesses to invest in the 9th Ward that he manipulates Detective Lucinda Valencia (Eiza González) to investigate and track down Blink. He’s not interested in the why or who, already calling them thugs before he knows the details of what occurred. Symms is far more interested in maintaining his position than he is in actual change for his constituents beyond re-election, a fact made more chilling the further into the story the audience goes. Blink and his friends are our way in, new contestants in a battle for their very souls, and we are forced to watch as the forces that want to keep them down feud among themselves for the right to claim them. It’s only when the characters are reminded of their humanity, their own innocence, their deep desire to be the change they set out to be, that any kind of hope in Cut Throat City arrives. No one is totally good nor totally bad, those that are don’t make it long past their expiration, but those who do reside in an ethical limbo riding a razors edge, taking their piece of flesh until they tilt too far on a path. The point, if there really is one within Cut Throat City, is that there’s an expectation of where we, the audience, think the story is going to end, of what truly makes for a satisfying conclusion, and Cuschieri and RZA force the audience to confront that expectation head on, unblinking. It is chilling in a variety of ways.
In his third time in the director’s chair, RZA is becoming far more confident, far more capable with his storytelling. Anyone familiar with the moviemaking process understands that what a director shoots versus what ends up in the final cut often are noticeably different and it only takes checking out the various deleted scenes included with the home release of Cut Throat City to confirm the suspicion of his growth. These scenes depict everything from interpersonal strife to heist preparation, none of which serve to enhance momentum or enrich what the audience gains from the feature edition. Is there content that is compelling in the deleted scenes? Yes, but that’s largely due to performance and context. The fact that RZA recognizes this highlights just how far he’s come from 2012’s The Man with the Iron Fists, a film which was stronger in idea than execution. That sense isn’t just presumption from watching the film as the nearly nine-minute behind the scenes featurette includes not just footage of RZA working out scenes with his cast, but interviews with the cast themselves confirming so. In each one, the discussion is either focused on the narrative or his skill on set. While there isn’t much exploration in terms of the process of filming, the featurette does offer insight as to what the project meant to the principles and how it remains relevant today.
Over the course of its 123-minute runtime, Cut Throat City reveals the true menace of its name. It’s not that violence is seen as the way out, but that it is for many the *only* way out and survival requires, forgive the phrasing, a miracle. The core cast of Moore, Johnson, Whitaker, and Shipp Jr. do tremendous work humanizing what would be stereotypes with lesser actors, while supporting performances from González, Hawke, Graham, Wesley Snipes, Rob Morgan, and Terrence Howard beautifully craft the web from which our leads must escape or perish within. Cut Throat City may lack the subtly of August’s similarly themed Project Power, as well as the grand fight sequences, but it packs a stronger punch in the end.
Cut Throat City Special Features
- Behind the Scenes (8:58)
- Deleted Scenes
- Teaser/Theatrical Trailers
- Well Go USA Previews
Available on digital beginning October 6th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD October 20th, 2020.
For more information, head to the official Cut Throat City Well Go USA website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.