starstarstar-halfstar-outline(2.5 stars)

There’s a bit of wisdom dispensed in “Cut Throat City,” a not quite cut-and-dried crime thriller set in post-Katrina New Orleans and distinguished by a supporting cast of colorful characters and social commentary: “A pencil can take you a lot further than a gun,” one character tells another, in a tale centering on a struggling cartoonist (Shameik Moore) who puts down his sketch pad and turns to crime when career roadblocks and financial desperation push him into a corner.

And so it is with this film, written by Paul Cushieri and directed by the musician, author and filmmaker RZA with an ear and eye for lively detail that makes it a bit more than a genre exercise. Featuring small but vivid appearances by rapper-actor-multihyphenate T.I., Wesley Snipes, Ethan Hawke, Terrence Howard, Isaiah Washington and Rob Morgan, the story introduces us to Moore’s Blink in a prologue set on his wedding day, as Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on the Crescent City.

The film then jumps ahead to a Ninth Ward struggling to emerge from the devastation of the storm into a world of FEMA trailers and heartless bureaucracy. Blink and his three childhood friends (Demetrius Shipp Jr., Denzel Whitaker and Keean Johnson) — all hurting and hopeless, part street-wise, part in over their heads — accept a casino-heist assignment from the local crime boss (T.I.), who rules via intimidation and the occasional grisly punishment. Called “walking the plank,” it has nothing to do with pirates, or planks, but rather with a caged raccoon and a very tender part of the male anatomy. “You might want to look away,” someone says, as RZA’s camera wisely averts its gaze, just in the nick of time.

Tonally, that moment is a departure from the rest of the film, which, while not without violence, is generally less gratuitous in meting it out. Women are relegated to mostly small, scantily-clad parts, except for Blink’s wife (Kat Graham) and the detective assigned to the case (Eiza González).

Things do not go as planned for Blink and his crew, as one might expect in a film of this sort, leading to scenes with a calculating undertaker (Washington); Blink’s estranged father (Snipes), who offers Blink and his friends a place to hole up after things get hot; and Howard’s crime capo, a man known as the Saint, but far from saintly, despite his beatific demeanor while dispensing with those who displease him. There is a twist or two and double-crossing, along with colorfully obscene language about the size of mosquitoes.

This makes for an entertaining, if familiar ride.

“Cut Throat City” is, at heart, film noir, but for the graffiti and graphic-novel age — a tale of bleakness and alienation told with bright hues, under an unforgiving sun.

R. At AMC’s Hoffman Center 22, Potomac Mills 18 and Tysons Corner 16 theaters; Cinemark’s Centreville 12 and Fairfax Corner 14 theaters; and Regal’s Ballston Quarter 12, Dulles Town Center 10, Fairfax Towne Center 10, Fox Stadium 16, Kingstowne, Springfield Town Center 12 and Virginia Gateway 14 theaters. Contains violence, pervasive crude language, drug use, some sexual material and nudity. 123 minutes.