Director, Renny Harlin’s desire to reinvigorate the sagging career of his wife, Geena Davis, transforming her from light comedian into a butch action star, produced two films of dubious distinction. The unmitigated turkeys, so we were then led to believe, were The Long Kiss Goodbye (1996), in hindsight, a sort of bittersweet farewell to the couple’s crumbling marriage, and Cutthroat Island (1995); an exuberant, if occasionally silly, swashbuckler, costarring Davis (somewhat ill-served in her faux sexy/tough pretend), and art house fav, Matthew Modine, looking every inch the rakishly handsome rogue. Troubled in its lengthy – and costly – location shoot (estimated between $98 and $115 million) and unfairly maligned by the critics (more intent on telescoping their contempt and blame on Harlin for his seemingly profligate expenditures) Cutthroat Island quickly acquired the reputation of an abysmal artistic – as well as financial – flop. Alas, only part of this assessment holds up.
While it is true, Cutthroat Island was the last movie funded by Carolco, the company filing for chapter eleven shortly after its release; it is debatable how much Harlin’s opulent pirate flick contributed to this fiscal implosion. Certainly, if Cutthroat Island had been a smash hit, then Carolco might have survived the bloodletting from its creditors. Either way, the company was on very shaky ground. Yet, for all its misfires (it is rumored Harlin, immensely dissatisfied with the original production design, scrapped early construction on the two pirate ships, to begin anew with Norman Garwood), Cutthroat Island remains a lavishly appointed, occasionally exhilarating and thoroughly exquisite spectacle; Peter Levy’s elaborate cinematography capturing all the exoticism and natural splendor of the movie’s Thai and Malta locations.
That neither its screenplay, cobbled together by Michael Frost Beckner, James Gorman, Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, nor the acting put forth by Davis or Modine ever manages to rise above the banal is regrettable, although queerly, not as lethal to the film’s overall entertainment value as anticipated. One could hardly blame Matthew Modine, as example; cast in the eleventh hour after the film’s original star – Michael Douglas – bowed out; citing too much emphasis on Morgan Adams (the Geena Davis role); a sultry/fiery she-captain, who champions her loyal crew onto riches galore. Modine was not initially considered on the A-list of alternatives; not even its’ B-roster as the producers attempted to broker favor, first with Tom Cruise, then Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Liam Neeson, Jeff Bridges, Ralph Fiennes and (gasp/choke) Charlie Sheen. Of the aforementioned, I can only see Fiennes doing the part any justice.
But Matthew Modine is a very competent ‘last resort’; his career, in retrospect, one of the grand disappointments in recent Hollywood lore, his potential box office cache never plumbed to make him a bona fide star. Apart from his swarthy good looks herein (a devilish grin and robust physicality, easily believed in the part) Modine can also fence with the best - a definite plus. The pity of it is that the screenplay never allows Modine to do much of anything, except play nursemaid to Geena Davis’ flashier tomboy/vixen. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Michael Douglas turned the part of William Shaw down and why Matthew Modine – despite having precious little to do – seems to fit so well as token testosterone on this feministic jaunt through the Caribbean. He’s more of an appendage to the plot, looking scruffily debonair; a quality Penny Marshall’s Lavern (of Lavern & Shirley fame) would have astutely coined as ‘moon doggy’.
This too might have clicked, if not for Davis’ lethal miscalculation on how to be both feminine and daring. She never masters this tightrope; coming across too overbearing – a butch bitch – frequently taken to task in this male-dominated pirate world and even more readily beaten to a pulp. Perhaps to give his wife in public (and representationally) her comeuppance (what, otherwise would have turned into a courtroom drama of domestic violence), Harlin fairly revels in his rather transparent masochistic streak towards the character of Morgan Adams. She really takes a beating. It should also be pointed out, Morgan generally gives as good as she gets. In one of the movie’s most remarkable action sequences, Davis’s Morgan, looking fairly beleaguered and brutalized, races through a brothel of terrorized extras, diving headfirst from a second story window, to take a tumble (caught in slow-mo), perfectly landing in the coachman’s seat atop a careening carriage driven by Modine’s disreputable rascal, William Shaw. I can only imagine how much rehearsal time went into this sequence – to get the timing just right – but it’s rather obvious Davis is doing her own stunt work and even more transparent she isn’t having a good time. She is, however, a pro.
The biggest problem I have with Cutthroat Island is it thoroughly mangles the dynamic of the romance. From the characters’ first ‘cute meet’ to the penultimate ship’s rescue finale, Morgan Adams treats William Shaw appallingly, as her subservient. If this relationship is ever to get off the ground – much less, succeed - then it will be Davis’ captain who will be wearing the britches – very starchily pressed – from now on. Alas, the…uh… ‘chemistry’ between the commanding Geena Davis and emasculated Matthew Modine never goes beyond the hook and worm stage; the clunky screenplay more intent on giving us a lot of shallow ‘crotch humor’ in place of more hearty and lustful byplay. As example; at one point, Davis’ Morgan presses a rapier against Shaw’s sheathed genitals to press him – literally – into providing her with a translation of the presumed Latin inscription she has taken from the scalp of her late father. Noting the writing mirrored in the blade, Morgan proclaims “They’re backward” to which Modine’s ego-wounded fop goofily declares, “I assure you, they’re normal in every respect.”
One can either choose to laugh or cringe at such adolescent humor. But the fact remains such dodgy/stodgy dialogue does not serve the story or these characters particularly well. Again, and miraculously, even this isn’t enough to sink the enterprise entirely; perhaps because there are other assets in this movie to deflect our attentions. Frank Langella, as Morgan’s uncle – Dawg Brown – also, her arch nemesis, is a fascinatingly cruel villain; played with aplomb by Langella, who only occasionally teeters into camp; and even so, of a deliciously malevolent ilk. Stan Shaw and Rex Linn, as Morgan’s devoted crewmembers, Glasspoole and Mr. Blair respectively, are equally engaging. Despite the most threadbare dialogue given to either, each manages to distinguish themselves when they appear on camera. Christopher Masterson – as cabin boy, Bowen – also, has a few well-timed lines. If anything, these actors are underused in Cutthroat Island and this is, most definitely, a shame. On the flipside: underused is always better than overplayed.
The other great asset for the film is Norma Garwood’s production design, buoyed by Roger Cain and Keith Pain’s art direction, Maggie Gray’s set decoration and Enrico Sabbatini’s regal costuming. Cutthroat Island has to be one of the most meticulously appointed pirate movies ever made; its superb recreations of these bygone Spanish/British outposts dotting the tropics, complete with their seedy, wench and drunkard infested back alleys and bars, evoking fond reminiscences of an ‘E’-ticket ride through Disneyland’s audio-animatronic, Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, long before the Mouse House endeavored to give us their CGI-laden movies based on the same ride. We really must doff our caps to Peter Levy’s cinematography for taking it all in; the pyrotechnics full scale and, at times, detonated frightfully close to the principles. The cream of the jest is John Debney’s underscore; dedicated mostly to variations on a towering central theme that perfectly evokes the nautical flair of the piece.
After a mood-setting main title sequence, the plot, such as it is, begins in 1668 in Jamaica. In the movie’s playful prologue we see Morgan Adams quietly dressing in the presence of a half-naked lieutenant (Thomas Lockyer) still reclining in bed. He devilishly informs Mogran she is trapped. Since before their flagrante delicto, he has been all too eager to collect on the bounty on her head, producing a rather large musket gun from beneath his pillow. Unmoved by this turn of events, Morgan casually explains she knew all along the lieutenant was playing her for a fool, producing a handful of tiny metal bearings in the palm of her hand. “See,” she playfully exclaims, “I took your balls!”
We move aboard the Reaper: Dawg Brown’s pirate vessel. It seems Dawg is intent on torturing Morgan’s peg-legged father, Black Harry (Harris Yulin) to learn the whereabouts of his pirate’s booty hidden somewhere in the Caribbean. Harry goads Dawg, claiming the location for the loot is in his head, electing to throw himself overboard, tied to the ship’s anchor, rather than reveal the whereabouts of his formidable stash. Waiting in a rowboat off the side is Harry’s daughter, Morgan, who rescues him just long enough to die in her arms near the shore. Before he passes, however, Harry orders Morgan to shave his head, revealing part of a map tattooed on the back of his skull. Renny Harlin spares us the next perverse bit, Morgan scalping her dead father’s remains to ensure Dawg does not get his hands on the map; the piece of dried flesh later confused for pigskin by William Shaw.
Instead, we shift focus to a lavish ball at the Governor’s mansion in Port Royal. Governor Ainslee (Patrick Malahide) instructs the rather foppish Captain Trotter (Angus Wright) to court Miss Mandy Rickets (Mary Pegler). After all, she is an heiress, certain to enrich any man with her dowry, if not an obvious ornamentation to his bed. When Trotter declares “she is rather homely”, Ainslee coldly points out to Trotter so is he. It is a match made in ‘heaven’…or some such place. Alas, before Trotter can make his move, William Shaw intrudes; his eyes more clearly focused on the prize of a string of pearls dangling around Rickets’ throat. Shaw is a conniver and a charmer. But he is a poor thief, easily exposed, arrested and enslaved for his presumptuousness.
Arriving in Port Royal with her father’s scalp, to seek an interpreter for what she believes are Latin inscriptions on the map, and disguised as a lady of culture, Morgan – accompanied by Glasspoole, Bowen and a treacherous chronicler, John Reed (Maury Chaykin) - enter the local jail, determined to spring Shaw from his shackles. At a public slave auction, Morgan forcibly outbids a French aristocrat, Toussant (Ken Bones) who desires Shaw as his servant. Toussant declares he will have Shaw at any price and momentarily suggests if Morgan is attempting to buy him purely for pleasure he – Toussant - would most certainly accommodate her in Shaw’s stead, and, at no cost. Once again, Renny Harlin illustrates his proclivity for male-driven egocentric sexism, and sexually aggressive female vipers who will stand for none of it; Morgan stirring Toussant to reconsider his purpose by jabbing her concealed dagger into the soft flesh of his outer thigh. Morgan wins the auction, but is found out by one of the more astute captains of the guard, who identify her from a ‘wanted’ poster hanging in the public square.
Renny Harlin moves us into the film’s first big action set piece; Shaw and Morgan taking turns at the reigns of a runaway carriage careening through the tight streets; the pair momentarily separated when Shaw is forced to improvise an alternate route to avert mowing down a funeral processional already in progress. Ainslee orders a ship docked at port to fire on the carriage. But Morgan and Shaw stage their daring escape with great success and are soon out of harm’s way. Ainslee now enlists the aid of the easily frightened and even more readily corruptible John Reed. As he has frequently followed this pirate bands on their journeys and plunder, to chronicle their exploits in his novels, they will think nothing of having him along this time.
Once again, Harlin shifts to another port of call. The first act of Cutthroat Island is, in fact, a cleverly camouflaged Cook’s tour of the Malta locations; Morgan, Glasspoole, Bowen and Shaw now descending on the port of Spittlefield Harbor, where Morgan finagles her way into Mordechai Fingers (George Murcell) good graces; also past a pair of protectors into his private lair. Fingers has the second piece of the map to her late father’s treasure. But Mordechai is no fool. However, he quickly throws in his lot with Morgan; an ill-fated decision. For Dawg has caught up to Morgan and her crew. In the ensuing bar room brawl, Fingers is murdered and Shaw discovers the second piece of the map, keeping it to himself as he and Morgan make yet another perilous departure into the night. Dawg is quite ruthless, severely wounding his niece in the side. Morgan is taken back to her ship – the Morning Star - by Glasspoole and Bowen. Shaw professes to be a doctor. With a bottle of rum as both his anesthetic and sanitizer, Shaw diligently toils to surgically remove the imbedded ball bearing from Morgan’s side. His success and her inebriation conspire to effectively lead into a fleeting romantic pas deux, interrupted by Bowen. Later, Shaw sneaks into the map room, figuring out the coordinates to Cutthroat Island.
Regrettably, Reed also discovers as much and sends a carrier pigeon with this information back to Ainslee. In the meantime, Morgan believes the worst about Shaw. After all, in his greedy zeal to possess untold riches he would just as likely use any means at his disposal – even seduction – to secure such a treasure. There is little time to debate the point. For Dawg’s ship, the Reaper is bearing down hard. Morgan sails the Morning Star into a coral reef, then a gale. Another deceiver among the lot – the treasonous, Scully, seizes upon the opportunity to mutiny against Morgan. She and a handful of loyal companions, including Shaw, Blair, Bowen and Glasspoole are cast adrift in a small rowboat, almost certain to capsize in the heavy storm. Although their boat is wrecked, fortune smiles on Morgan once again. The next morning, she and her surviving crew discover Cutthroat Island dead ahead. Alas, somewhere in the night, Shaw has seemingly been lost at sea.
Not so, having made it to landfall ahead of Morgan and, using his wits to steal the last piece of the map from Dawg. It would be a perfect foil too, if not for the deadly quicksand. After making landfall, Morgan and her crew stumble upon Shaw in the nick of time. He attempts to barter for his life, using the missing pieces of the map as collateral. Morgan calls his bluff, and Shaw is forced to acquiesce in a pledge of good faith, even before Morgan shows little interest in sparing his life. Nevertheless, Morgan is merciful. After Shaw’s rescue, he and Morgan follow the map’s instructions to a perilous cliff, scaling half way down its steep vertical precipice to explore a hidden cave. There, they do indeed find the fabled treasure trove. Regrettably, Dawg has located the cave; instructing his men to shoot Morgan and Shaw who are now dangling from ropes over the side of the cliff. In what is Cutthroat Island’s most fanciful plot twist, electing to plunge into the raging surf far below, Morgan and Shaw are miraculously spared from death.
The pair is separated in the swirling waters and Shaw awakens some time later on the beach; bruised, though otherwise unharmed. In regaining consciousness, he is discovered by Reed, who carefully leads him into a trap set by Dawg, Ainslee, and the mutineers. It seems everyone has joined forces against Morgan, intent on equally splitting up the formidable fortune. Shaw’s recapture is, mercifully, short-lived; Morgan sneaking on board the Morning Star and launching a full scale assault with her loyal crew against Scully and the mutineers. Morgan’s plan is to attack the Reaper by surprise. Regrettably, Dawg spies the rouse through his magnifying glass and wastes no time in a counterattack.
Renny Harlin’s penultimate sea battle is epic to say the least; a dazzling display of pyrotechnics. Muskets and canons flare; Shaw escaping his shackles only to be pinned below decks when the shifting tides wedge him between some heavy cargo. Ainslee is dispatched posthaste; blown to bits by canon fire; Morgan blasting a hole in the Reaper’s floor to sink the ship, but free the treasure; discovering Shaw too late. As the Reaper takes on more ballast, Morgan struggles to disentangle Shaw, while keeping her head above the rising waterline, also intact, as Dawg makes several brutal attempts with his sword to rid himself of his meddlesome niece once and for all. Dawg corners Morgan, knocking the sword from her hand. Only then does she reveal her deliberate plan, exposing a canon with its fuse prepped and lit and blowing Dawg through the wall of the ship.
Rescuing Shaw from his watery grave by breathing life into his body, Morgan also manages to save the treasure. Sometime later, she and her crew stand in awe aboard the Morning Star, admiring the vast assortment of jewels, gold and other treasures splayed across its decks. Morgan informs her triumphant pirate brethren they can either split up this loot now and go their separate ways, or elect to throw in their lot and sail to Madagascar, where other new adventures and the prospect of even greater riches likely await. After a few pensive moments of reluctant contemplation (Mr. Blair, as example, momentarily teasing he’d rather be a farmer than pursue his present course as a pirate), the crew unanimously vote to follow Morgan on whatever damn-fool pursuit her fickle heart desires. Morgan commands Shaw to her bed chamber, presumably, at long last to consummate their awkwardly adversarial relationship; the camera pulling back to reveal the Morning Star on its course for Madagascar as the sun begins to set.
Cutthroat Island is perhaps the most ridiculous excuse for a pirate movie ever. And yet, I rather enjoyed its sincerity. Although Geena Davis had fervently vowed to bow out of the project after Michael Douglas’ departure (the terms of her ironclad contract dictating otherwise), she nevertheless, secedes whatever residual hesitations remained at the forefront of her contemplations and has thrown herself headstrong and heart-first into this movie. If her performance lacks credibility – and occasionally, it does – the verve invested to partake in its grueling array of stunt work, with a body double employed only for the most perilous sequences, is commendable. Say what you want about the lagging and improbable story elements; Cutthroat Island was not an easy shoot by any stretch of the imagination.
The movie excels not so much for any one actor’s participation and/or performance, but rather, because the sum total yields to a communal investment; cast and crew delivering a class-A treatment of this very unevenly scripted hoopla being peddled as art. No use poo-pooing what’s not there, when what is gives a reasonable – if hardly perfect – facsimile of a rollicking good time aboard the Jolly Roger. In the last analysis, Cutthroat Island will never be a great movie. It is, however, a highly competent one; Renny Harlin giving us much to take in, filling the screen with some of the most sumptuous visuals ever created for any sea-faring adventure. Hoist the colors and raise the anchors, then. Cutthroat Island sets sail with a hearty ‘yo-ho’ while taking on a minimal amount of ennui. It’s fun, fanciful and frankly, better than you expect.
We can say the same regarding Lionsgate’s Blu-ray; a gorgeous 1080p presentation with one minor caveat. Flesh tones veer between densely saturated orange (we could perhaps forgive this, given most of the action takes place in the sun-kissed vistas of the supposed tropics), and dangerously close to acquiring the dreaded piggy-pink tone that is decidedly unacceptable. The shifts are basically between scenes shot within a controlled lighting environment (on sets) and those photographed outdoors. We won’t get critical. Nothing is atrocious. Besides: contrast is superb. Blacks never crush and whites are pristine. A thin veneer of grain and virtually no age-related artifacts and ‘WOW!’ does Cutthroat Island look fairly spectacular in hi-def. Fine detail pops as it should, particularly in close-up; a startling amount of information in hair, skin, fabric, wood grains, etc. Set against the burnt stone facades of Port Royal, the blood red Royal Navy uniforms pop with razor-sharp clarity. Ripples on the ocean take on an almost third dimension. Ahoy! Great stuff. Jungle foliage looks breathtaking; ditto for the insides of the cavern and the richly saturated shimmering golds of the pirate’s booty.
In building the movie’s sound design, Renny Harlin insisted Cutthroat Island should be a visceral aural experience. The Blu-ray lives up to his wishes in 7.1 lossless DTS with John Debney's old-time orchestrations giving us a big-time reason to cheer. Wow! Dialogue is still a tad frontal sounding, and occasionally, not all that well integrated with SFX. But this is in keeping with the original movie’s sound design. Honestly, you couldn’t ask for better herein. The earthy calls of the jungle are vividly recreated. Better still, when cannonballs explode the screen thunders with an immersive presence apt to knock one from his/her comfy armchair. Channel surround is maxed out here, arguably at the expense of a more nuanced sound field. Personally, I think it works just fine for the movie. Extras are limited to a badly worn trailer, a lousy junket produced at the time of the movie’s general release, and a highly welcomed audio commentary (if memory serves) a holdover from the old DVD. Bottom line: Cutthroat Island is hardly perfect entertainment. But it looks spectacular on Blu-ray. Highly recommended for fans. Also, for those interested in discovering the movie for the first time. It’s not the flop you’ve heard about.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)