By the 1990s there were a few genre films that had become labeled ‘dead’. They were genre pictures that generally audiences just didn’t respond to anymore no matter what kind of tricks or how much money were put into them.
Musicals, westerns, gladiator movies. It would take a number of years before these would become revitalized and come close to reaching the levels of popularity they once enjoyed and attract audiences again.
But during this stretch of time they were all viewed as risky projects and just not a good idea to invest in them, which explained their rarity when they did actually crop up.
One such genre that was considered box office poison was ‘the pirate film’. It had been a long time since the swashbuckling heights of Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk and The Buccaneer when audiences were dazzled by sword and sails adventures.
During the course of the 1980’s, the pirate genre got a few entries – The Pirate Movie, Yellowbeard, The Pirates of Penzance and Roman Polanki’s Pirates. None of which created excitement or renewed enthusiasm. Some were downright embarrassing!
That didn’t stop director Renny Harlin and Carolco Pictures from making the big-budgeted Cutthroat Island. With Harlin’s then-wife Geena Davis as the star, an astronomical budget of $98 million and countless production problems, the film would eventually become one of the biggest, most notorious box office flops of all time. It would be one of the final gasps of Davis as an A-list star and be a contributing factor to the demise of Carolco.
Davis plays Morgan Adams, a tough as nails swashbuckler who is in search of three pieces of a map that will lead to a treasure of gold on the mysterious Cutthroat Island. Her two uncles and father possess these separate pieces, however her fourth uncle the evil Dawg Brown (Frank Langella) is willing to spill any blood to get them, even killing his brothers for them. Fortunately before he dies Morgan’s father gives her his piece of the map, which just leaves two for her to track down.
Now captain of her father’s ship, Morgan recruits a thief Willam Shaw (Matthew Modine) to translate the Latin written on the map. From there they form an uneasy partnership as they search for the other pieces of map, get into a lot of pirate-y action, culminating in a huge showdown against Dawg for the riches of the treasure.
Cutthroat Island has all the staples one would expect from a pirate movie. We get the sword fights, cannons firing, big ships attacking each other, a buried treasure, filthy looking extras, swinging from ropes, a sweeping orchestral score, a monkey providing comedy relief. The only thing Cutthroat Island doesn’t have is someone walking the plank. I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone do that in a movie.
Despite its infamous reputation I was able to enjoy Cutthroat Island more than I expected to. Wiping away all the notoriety attached to it, the film does contain some good stuff – notably the action sequences. Much of it is done with practical effects and there are some scenes that are thrilling to watch. It’s helped along with a great score by John Debney.
This isn’t to say the movie doesn’t have it’s problems. The story is a standard pirate-y one – finding a buried treasure and fighting the sinister bad guys who are also after it. There’s nothing special about that.
This simple premise fails to really get involving and it didn’t keep me engaged with finding the treasure and piecing together the clues that will lead them to it. I was never on the edge of my seat awaiting to see where the characters will be taken next and what they have to do.
In the heroic gender role reversal I thought Davis was fine with her derring-do antics. She’s handles her sword, the running, the jumping all fairly well. Sometimes an actress cast in an action role is just not up to the challenge and needs a lot of help from the editors and stunt people. Here Davis is pretty convincing.
Later in her career she would become a world class archer, so it’s clear she possess some athletic ability and it shows in her performance here.
This sadly is the only part of her performance that comes off well, as the rest of the time she’s saddled with cheesy dialogue and wooden speeches that derail any believability of her strong character. Her statuesque frame standing over her crew looks good, but when she starts barking orders I just don’t buy it.
It’s very disappointing. I have much more fun watching her in her action scenes than I do when she has to exchange dialogue with other characters and even worse trading romantic barbs with Modine.
There are no real sparks between Modine and Davis. It’s just one of those things where that onscreen chemistry is lacking between two actors. I can’t explain it, but it just comes across as very forced. They both look like they’re trying, but what they’re given to work with just falls flat.
Langella is fun hamming it up as the villain, which isn’t a surprise for anyone who has seen him play a villain before. His character is the most fun to watch overall out of the cast.
The film does deliver on some of the spectacle that so much money was spent on. There’s some terrific scenery on the screen. Harlin stages some fun scenes with a horse and carriage, two ships battling side by side and our heroes hanging alongside a cliff.
You can see the effort that was put into it all and the practical effects have held up well. During one explosive scene it’s interesting to see Modine get hit in the head with a flying barrel which obviously was not planned.
For some reason some segments of the action are played in slow motion. That wouldn’t be so bad, but the characters continue speaking in regular time. It just makes things look very awkward. There are some bits where early CGI effects are used and are very noticeable, but overall though the action is pretty good, over-the-top kind of stuff.
It’s not a terrific movie, but I certainly don’t think it’s the disaster it’s made out to be. I would say it’s an ‘ok movie’. I don’t have any great desire to watch it again, but while I did it it held my attention and I kept thinking, “this is not so bad”.
I can appreciate the fact the film plays fairly straight with the genre. You won’t see any ghosts or mermaids or any supernatural nonsense invade its territory. The real weak links are the characters and the humdrum story.
Had it been able to go further on the story alone, got me more invested in the hunt for the treasure, enjoyed the repartee between Davis and Modine and not relied so much on the action scenes to move things along I think it could have been much better.