Looking back at Cutthroat Island

The box office failure of Cutthroat Island put Hollywood off pirate-based movies for years. Here’s Ti’s look back at an oft-maligned film…

In a few months, Disney will release the fourth Pirates Of The Caribbean film in order to make another gazillion pounds and to semi-apologise for the second and third sequels. However, before the first film was released in 2003, the pirate film was literally dead in the water due to one movie, Cutthroat Island.

Today, Cutthroat Island‘s reputation precedes it to such a degree that I’d wager almost none of you have ever chosen to sit down and actually watch it. Instead, you turn your nose up at its very mention, so strong is its synonymy with box office failure and for its having destroyed the careers of almost all those involved in its production.

Upon its release in 1995, Cutthroat Islandwas one of the most expensive films made, with a budget of $115 million. When it only made back $10 million at the U.S. box office, it not only helped bankrupt Carolco Studios (the studio that gave the world Terminator 2), but nearly destroyed the reputation of director, Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2), and many of its cast members.

Ad – content continues below

I never saw it at the cinema (despite being its key demographic male, 12-15 years old), but rented it out a year later, out of morbid curiosity and a love of all things swashbuckling. From what I remember, I enjoyed it at the time, due to the epic sea battles, the exciting swords fights and more buckles than you could swash in an evening.

Until this weekend, though, I hadn’t seen it since that first time, but after seeing it for £3.97 on Amazon, and with my general apathy at the new Pirates film and a lack of anything better to do, I decided to give it a re-watch. I wanted to see if it was as fun as I remembered, or whether it truly deserves its reputation as one of cinema’s greatest stinkers.

For those of you that haven’t seen the film, Cutthroat Island follows the adventures of infamous female pirate, Morgan Adams (Geena Davis), and her educated slave, William Shaw (Matthew Modine), who are racing to recover the three portions of a map that will lead them to the mysterious treasure of Cutthroat Island. Hot on their heels, however, is the Royal Navy led by Governor Ainslee (Patrick Malahide), and Morgan’s evil uncle, Douglas “Dawg Brown” Adams (Frank Langella), who has killed his brothers (including Morgan’s father) to find the loot.

So far, so Pirates Of The Caribbean, but instead of playing the supernatural/cursed treasure card, Cutthroat Island opts for the traditional family adventure film, with lots of derring-do, PG-13 violence (a man is hit by a cannonball and simply flies out the back of the ship instead of exploding), and a cheeky monkey. (Oh, wait. That was in Pirates Of The Caribbean too).

Ad – content continues below

After making Cliffhanger, Harlin was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. Fulfilling most boys’ childhood fantasies, he opted for a good old fashioned pirate movie, filled with explosions, swords fights and buxom wenches, and to make things more fun, he cast his then girlfriend in the lead role.

Now, I like Geena Davis. With the right material, she can be funny, sassy and downright sexy (see her later collaboration with ex-husband Harlin, The Long Kiss Goodnight). However, in Cutthroat Island, she is lumped with some of the most awful and wooden dialogue ever written. It also doesn’t help that it appears she is reading most of it off dummy cards. Still, she looks the part, and can dish out a good right hook when the action calls for it.

Modine, on the other hand (a replacement for the originally-cast Michael Douglas), looks like he is having a ball and provides the charisma the film sorely needs. His William Shaw is great fun to watch and he gets some of the film’s best lines (well, the best lines from a bad bunch).

Compared to the leading lady, though, you can’t help but think he’s a bit wet, especially when he constantly needs saving (this happens at least four times).

Ad – content continues below

I’m all for gender equality, but when your film is aimed at young men, it’s best to have your leading man do something manly every now and then. Still, our leading duo throw themselves into the action and appear to do the lion’s share of their stunts, which is refreshing to watch.

It’s Frank Langella, however, that comes away from this film with his reputation intact. As Dawg Brown, Langella gets to ham it up to the nines, shooting anyone that gets in his way and growling lines like “Who wants to die first?” He clearly realised what kind of film it was during production, and plays up the cheesy aspects. At one point, he even raises his arms into the air during battle and shouts, “I love this! I love this!’

As for the rest of the cast, well, it appears none of them ever recovered, and disappeared into the unknown or to the small screen. The film is full of familiar faces for whom this could have been their big break, but thus it was not to be. This includes Rex Linn (CSI: Miami), Christopher Masterson (Malcolm In The Middle) and Malahide, who now crops up in almost every BBC/ITV production.

Ad – content continues below

Luckily, the bad script, wooden acting, some shoddy CGI composite (watch out for one really bad scene of Geena Davis falling off a balcony) and unconvincing love story can’t take away from the movie’s good points and there are quite a few. I’ve always been a big fan of practical action and in these days of blue screen action, CGI-enhanced sets and digital doubles, it’s refreshing to see a film with actual locations, real full-size sets and good old fashioned pyrotechnics. Cutthroat Island has this in spades.

It seems Harlin spent most of his budget on creating massive sets and then proceeded to blow them to pieces (to the point where he had to direct second unit, because money was tight). An opening action scene, for example, seeing Shaw and Morgan escaping the Navy via coach through the streets of Port Royal, before a nearby frigate decides (for no apparent reason) to simply open fire on the city. Cue slo-mo explosions that would put Michael Bay to shame.

The final battle is also pretty spectacular, as the film’s two full-scale ships pull along side one another and proceed to blow the shit out of each other. We’re so used to seeing CGI-reliant explosions that, when you see normal pyrotechnics in action, it’s pretty fantastic.

Another plus point is the film’s score by John Debney. Now, a bad film can be made at least nineteen percent better with a good score (this is a fact), and this is definitely the case with Debney’s Cutthroat Island score. Rousing and reminiscent of the old Errol Flynn films, the film’s score has probably become more popular than the film itself, often being used in trailers and promo spots.

Ad – content continues below

But do these points save the film? Well, not really. Is it a great film? No. Is it entertaining? Well, kinda. The dialogue and preposterous nature of the film will have you howling in laughter, especially when Langella is threatening Davis with a large animatronic eel. But in terms of rollicking action and adventure, you could do a lot worse, and certain set pieces are still impressive to behold.

I’d recommend it simply if you’re curious, and you can’t go wrong, with it being under a fiver. However, be warned that the UK DVD is cut in places. It seems some head butts were omitted and other scenes of a violent nature in order to get the PG rating. It’s quite frustrating, as certain secondary characters seem to suddenly die without you seeing it. In one scene, Langella shoots Harper from Sharpe (Daragh O’Malley) and he seems to disappear from the scene as if he was never there. It’s very strange to watch.

Still, hand on my heart, it’s better than Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End.

Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here.