Four childhood friends turned small-time hustlers are smoking weed and shooting the breeze in The RZA’s “Cut Throat City” when the topic of Quentin Tarantino films comes up.
“ ‘Reservoir Dogs’ was the s---,” says one.
“Overrated,” comes the argument. “Plus, they say [the n-word] too much.”
“YOU say [the n-word] too much,” a third friend chimes in.
The fourth buddy says: “Wait wait, what’s too much — like Lil Wayne numbers?”
Pop culture references from “The Godfather” to “The Wizard of Oz” abound in P.G. Cuschieri’s crackling screenplay, and The RZA’s direction is suitably jagged and lively to reflect the tense and dangerous atmosphere in New Orleans’ devastated Lower Ninth Ward post-Katrina. It’s like the Wild West, with drug dealers and gangsters lording over block after block.
As for those four young men: We like these guys. They’re smart and funny and loyal to one another, and they have that easy, comfortable rapport that allows them to give each other merciless grief even as they’ve got each other’s backs, no matter what. We’d like to think they’re all going to be OK — but with FEMA turning its back on the neighborhood and very little in the way of legitimate job opportunities at hand, they commit to pulling off a high-risk heist of a local casino, and we know it’s likely some if not all of them aren’t going to get out of this story alive.
“Cut Throat City” is an ambitious, messy, sprawling and bullet-riddled crime epic, with strong performances by Shameik Moore as Blink, Demetrius Shipp Jr. as Miracle; Denzel Whitaker as Andre and Keean Johnson as Junior, not to mention one of the most eclectic (and electric) supporting casts in any movie this year: Tip “T.I.” Harris, Terrence Howard, Wesley Snipes, Isaiah Washington, Eiza Gonzalez, Kat Graham and for good measure how about Ethan Hawke?
Out of cash and options, the foursome turns to T.I.’s “Cousin Bass,” a malevolent drug lord and local crime kingpin, who tells them there’s only way they can make their bones — by robbing a local casino. To say the heist goes south is an understatement, and now just about everybody in the area is looking for the guys, and just about nobody has good intentions for them.
Kat Graham is outstanding as Blink’s wife Demyra, who enlists the help of Ethan Hawke’s cynical, boozy but still connected city councilman. Eiza Gonzales does fine work as a police detective who wants to solve the case and is hot on the trail — but also wants to make sure the suspects are brought in alive. And then there’s Terrence Howard as a born-again crime lord known as The Saint, who wears pink slacks, a straw hat, sleeve garters, a bow tie and leather suspenders, prays before folk art images, quotes Scripture and lectures the group on the history of New Orleans before offering to help them.
“Cut Throat City” ends on a note that’s too clever by half, but that doesn’t undercut all the vibrant, rough-edged, impressive storytelling that led to that moment.
Note: Please stay through the closing credits, as there’s an extended and quite important sequence on the way.