Saturday, 19 December 2020

Cut Throat City (2020) - Movie Review

The RZA earned his stripes as a cinematic storyteller long before he ever picked up the camera. That’s what made the first wave of Wu-Tang albums so fucking good: They all felt like mini-movies devoted to a single sense. The hard-body kung-fu of 36 Chambers, the stoner horror of Tical, the outsider comedy of ODB’s solo debut, the Godfather-tier Mafioso yarn of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, the thinking man’s chambara of Liquid Swords, the blaxploitation of Ironman, even the panoramic victory lap of Wu-Tang Forever; the RZA did what any director does and surrounded himself with capable writers and actors who wound up influencing the entire genre around them in one fell swoop.

Which is why the RZA’s first step into visual cinema with The Man With The Iron Fists, as fire as the soundtrack was, felt like a misstep. It was too raw (read: unrefined) and felt more like fan worship of the genre it sits in than him putting his own boot print on it. And when he followed that up with a directing spot on Iron Fist (AKA the worst of the Netflix Marvel series), him being in that chair just felt like a bad idea. Maybe his own ability to control the maestro stayed in the vocal booth. But I decided to relent and give his latest a try, and man, am I glad I did.

It operates in the same nexus point of old-school genre flicks, comic books, and hip-hop that comprises the Wu-Tang aesthetic, aimed towards the kind of gritty street tragedy that made for the Wu’s best cuts. A heist drama set in New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it’s the story of gangstas and wannabe-gangstas trying to navigate a city that got fucked over well before the hurricane hit. P.G. Cuschieri’s script gives Bobby Boulders a sturdy foundation of political and cultural corruption to work from, highlighting a group of young thugs who enter the world of crime to get back what FEMA failed to deliver: Reparations for what they’ve been through.

The cast for this thing is excellent, even from actors I wasn’t expecting to impress nearly as much as they do here. Shameik Moore as budding comic book creator James makes for a solid dramatic nucleus, T.I. as the resident kingpin Cousin sells intimidation really damn well (and oh, how fortunate we are that the camera doesn’t focus on people he makes ‘walk the plank’), Ethan Hawke makes another surprise appearance as the local governor, Terrence Howard gets a nice serving of scene-stealing later on, and Wesley Snipes is about as close as we’ll get to having Popa Wu in a motion picture nowadays. Him teaching James the art of chess and boxing was a nice touch.

The plot itself can be a bit messy, since it involves a lot of perspective shifts and quite a few different story lines converging around Katrina and how much changed (or hasn’t changed) in the aftermath, and the RZA does dip into cliched hip-hop music video shit at points (we respect the stripper’s hustle around here, but a point would’ve been nice), but it never loses focus of what it’s trying to say. It may dip ever-so-slightly into conspiracy with Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s Miracle and his take on why the hurricane hit (must’ve been a fan of Geostorm), but underneath that is a lot of cold-brick reality about gentrification and the magic of political convenience.

It opens with an animated depiction of James’ work, a very racially-charged bit of Dark Age pulp, which leads into a conversation about the nature of fiction vs. reality. A fitting introduction to a piece of fiction that serves as an energetic screed against the systems that kept New Orleans’ poorer districts without power well after Katrina abated. A pointing-of-fingers at the matchstick men presiding over a city-sized pool of gasoline.

After seeing the hip-hop aesthetic get done rough by so many past films, this is incredibly refreshing to witness. It’s a consistently entertaining flick with a lot of tension, some nice and quippy dialogue, and a killer soundtrack (including cuts from Method Man and Ghostface Killah); it seems the RZA has finally gotten a handle on this whole visual cinema thing.

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