“Cut Throat City” is about four guys — friends since childhood — who, after Hurricane Katrina, return to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans to find their neighborhood in shambles, no real help coming from FEMA, and no jobs. The central character, Blink (Shameik Moore), is a talented graphic novelist whose work is animated under the opening credits. It’s a vivid sequence of violence that foreshadows the tragedies to come.

The four guys are broke and have no prospects for employment. Blink can’t get a publisher to print his work. Miracle (Demetrius Shipp Jr.) is a small-time drug dealer. Andre (Denzel Whitaker) is an aspiring jazz trumpeter without a gig. Junior (Keean Johnson) seems to have given up any hope of finding work.

Desperate for money, they ask a local crime boss (the rapper T.I.), who is Blink’s wife’s cousin, for help. At his behest, they rob a local casino, but they don’t have much of a plan other than being armed, so it’s not a surprise when things go wrong. They get away with a bunch of money, but end up with not only the cops pursuing them, but the cousin’s crew, too, because he thinks they didn’t give him his share of the stolen loot. To get enough money to pay him off, the guys have to commit more crimes, which leads to dangerous and inevitable consequences.

That might have made for an interesting story, but instead, “Cut Throat City” pivots to involve a crooked city councilman (Ethan Hawke), a corrupt cop (Rob Morgan), Blink’s father (Wesley Snipes), and big time cocaine dealer “The Saint” (Terrence Howard). Those four characters each have laborious speeches about Katrina and the government’s lack of response, but they serve no purpose other than drawing us into a maelstrom of preaching and tangential matters.

I don’t know whether to blame the director, RZA (of Wu Tang Clan, helming his third feature), or the rookie writer, PG Cuschieri, for “Cut Throat City” going off the rails, but it does, by abandoning the action-heavy storyline of its first half. Where I started off somewhat sympathetic to the four lead characters, the detours later made me care less and less about their situations — until, in the end, the movie turned ponderous and boring. That’s quite a thematic shift from the promise of those opening credits.

“Cut Throat City” opens in some theaters today and will hit video-on-demand in October. I give it a 3 out of 10.