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Review: In ‘Cut Throat City’ RZA puts a thoughtful, personal spin on action

Shameik Moore and Kat Graham in the movie "Cut Throat City."
(Well Go USA)

The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.

The colorful animated opening credits to the crime drama “Cut Throat City” promise a picture both cartoonishly broad and gratuitously violent. But the movie undercuts those expectations almost immediately with the next scene, which reveals that these images were just panels in a graphic novel, drawn by a young artist named Blink (Shameik Moore), whose own friends complain to him that his lurid comic book fantasies are phony and too derivative of Quentin Tarantino.

A scene from the movie "Cut Throat City."
(Well Go USA)

“Cut Throat City” was written by P.G. Cuschieri and directed by RZA, the latter of whom worked with Tarantino on the soundtrack to the “Kill Bill” movies. The Tarantino reference is less of a slam than a statement. It’s defining what this film’s going to be: a collection of fascinating characters and digressive conversations, framed a bit more realistically than in “Pulp Fiction.”

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Set in New Orleans shortly after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, “Cut Throat City” starts slow, meandering by design. Cuschieri and RZA take the time to introduce Blink and his friends as a new kind of “lost generation,” whose past attempts to build something in their lives have all been washed away by the storm — and by a political and economic system that doesn’t prioritize their neighborhood.

So the guys dabble in robbery, following the lead of their block’s main mobster, Cousin (played by the rapper T.I.). Becoming scofflaws gets them noticed: by a savvy police detective (Eiza González), a cynical good ol’ boy politician (Ethan Hawke), and a flamboyant drug lord (Terrence Howard).

The big-name supporting performances — which also include Wesley Snipes as Blink’s earnest father and Rob Morgan as a dirty cop — give “Cut Throat City” some jolts of energy and theatrical flair. The downside to Cuschieri and RZA aiming for realism over sensationalism is that their movie sometimes feels aimless. And it doesn’t help that of the central cast, only the young-but-accomplished Moore has much screen presence.

Still, given RZA’s bona fides as a genre movie aficionado (and filmmaker, with his martial arts mini-epic “The Man with the Iron Fists”), it would’ve been easy for him to turn Cuschieri’s script into the kind of bullet-riddled B-picture the opening credits tease. Instead, the action sequences are almost an afterthought. “Cut Throat City” is a more thoughtful and personal film, concerned with how systemic racism — and zoning ordinances — can kill more people than a gun.

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'Cut Throat City'

Rated: R, for violence, pervasive language, drug content, some sexual material and nudity.
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 21, Vineland Drive-In, City of Industry; and in general release where theaters are open


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