Heist films, from “Rififi” to “Ocean’s Eleven” to “Widows,” are all about the planning. They’re missions impossible, and the fun of almost every one of them is: Can it make the intricacy of a robbery thrilling yet plausible? But in “Cut Throat City,” the third feature directed by the RZA, the desperate posse of impoverished amateur thugs who rip off a New Orleans casino scarcely have a plan, and does it ever show. That’s part of the film’s volatile but ramshackle design.
At first, they sit “innocently” at the slot machines, wearing hoodies. Then they pull down stocking masks that barely conceal their faces. One of them approaches the cashier, pointing a weapon in classic this-is-a-stickup mode, and the other two attack a guard and have to figure out, right there, how to jimmy open the rolling-cart vault with the chips in it. Somehow, they make it out with $150,000 — the sort of grab you get when you don’t plan. Then they make their getaway in a beat-up drug van, crowing about the money even with cops cars on their tail. But this is New Orleans in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when law enforcement isn’t what it used to be. The response to this robbery is scarcely more competent than the robbery itself.
“Cut Throat City,” as you may have gathered, is not a caper movie. It’s a story of lost lives hanging in the balance, looking anywhere they can for salvation. Blink (Shameik Moore), who draws graphic novels, and his three childhood pals — Miracle (Demetrius Shipp Jr.), a small-time drug dealer; Andre (Denzel Whitaker), an aspiring jazz trumpeter (he has no connections but does have a porkpie hat); and Junior (Keean Johnson), a white dog in cornrows who doesn’t appear to do much of anything — are from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a place hit so hard by Katrina that the hopes and dreams of the people who call it home have slipped from dim to zero.
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For a while, RZA does a vivid job of sketching in these go-nowhere lives. Blink makes a pitch to sell his graphic novel, and the corporate publisher’s faintly racist condescension is a door slammed in his face. Miracle, says one of his chums, is “the brokest-ass dope dealer I know on this block.” These four have no jobs, no assistance from FEMA, and the feeling that overshadows them is that Katrina, an act of nature, was also a kind of a conspiracy. “This happened just how they want it,” says Demitrius Shipp’s Miracle, with an edge that echoes his performance as Tupac Shakur in “All Eyez on Me.” “Why you think the 17th St. levee blew on the black side of town and not the white?”
With nowhere to go and nothing to lose, the four hook up with “Cousin” Bass (Tip “T.I.” Harris), a thug kingpin who’s a relative of Demyra (Kat Graham), the woman Blink has just married. In the yard of Cousin’s trailer, men bet on caged raccoon fights, and if one of them doesn’t pay up he’ll be forced to “walk the plank” — that is, Cousin will sic the raccoon he keeps in his office on the victim’s private parts. So when he sends our heroes off to rob the Fair Grounds Casino, you can bet that he wants his money.
It’s easy to see the elements of a good movie in “Cut Throat City” — an ambitious drama, like the machine-politics background story of “Widows” extended into the age-old swamp of New Orleans, a place where cops and criminals have forever scratched each other’s backs. The movie features a couple of rival crime bosses who, in different ways, mesmerize the camera. The rapper T.I. has long been an ace actor, and here, with his handsome face marked by vitiligo patches that give his skin a crooked handlebar mustache, he makes Cousin the kind of sociopath who has you hanging on every word, delivering his dry, hard threats with Shakespearean crispness. And in the film’s second half, Terrence Howard shows up as the Saint, a natty cocaine dealer who sits in a bow tie, Panama hat, and suspenders, dropping oblique philosophical nuggets and quoting scripture, as nude models package his product in the next room. Howard seems to relish the character’s svelte inhumanity, and that’s about all a villain needs.
Yet when these two aren’t on screen, “Cut Throat City” is a slipshod, desultory affair, built around a story hook that’s far from convincing: After the heist, Blink and his crew escape (except for one member, who gets killed), and inspired by their random success they go on a crime spree. They’re not professional criminals, and should be easy pickings for the law, even at a time of local lawlessness, when the city is in a chaos, and the policing if minimal. (It’s an anarchy zone.) But a web of loosely connected strings gets pulled to keep our heroes free. Which may make you go “Why?” or maybe just “Really?”
There are good actors sprinkled throughout. Ethan Hawke plays a crooked city councilman whose most human connection consists of carrying on drunken graveyard conversations with his late wife. Rob Morgan is a cop so marinated in corruption that he’s got a personality like hot sauce. (He’s a lot more fun to watch than Eiza González as a straight-arrow cop who thinks she’s going to nail the thieves old school.) And Wesley Snipes, as Blink’s crusty fisherman father, who lives in a shack, gives the film’s one true New Orleans performance, suggesting the kind of juice that should have been there throughout.
“Cut Throat City” has vivid moments, but RZA’s direction is better than P.G Cuschieri’s script. The film is a muddled social-protest thriller that tries to bridge the corrupt machinations upstairs with the desperation of the streets, and can’t find a way to connect them convincingly. Hurricane Katrina was a disaster that laid bare (and still does) the often hideous indifference of the U.S. government toward people of color. But in “Cut Throat City,” Katrina is also a metaphor — for a New Orleans washed away by the New Orleans of the future, a gentrified place that will be designed by the elite (and maybe by the crooks who want a piece of it). Katrina, in this movie, stands for the forces that hover over New Orleans, and for the racism that has always been part of the stew of the city. But in “Cut Throat City,” the metaphor isn’t fully mixed in. It sits on the surface, announcing itself, lending a top-heavy quality to a film that needed less contrivance and more flavor.