It took me nearly a quarter of a century to get around to giving CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995) a shot. Certified by the Guinness Book as the biggest financial bomb of all time, it got poor reviews, bankrupted Carolco Pictures (FIRST BLOOD, T2) before it even came out, diverted director Renny Harlin (following DIE HARD 2 and CLIFFHANGER) from the A-list and failed to create momentum for its revolutionary notion of giving a woman the lead role and top billing on a big budget summer adventure.
But I had reason to be suspicious of its reputation. Many of Harlin’s ‘90s movies, particularly his also-starring-Geena-Davis followup THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, deserve more credit than they got at the time. And there’s definitely precedent for mob mentality panning of movies that have been heavily covered as over budget, out of control productions. This had the additional gossip-bait of the star and director being married to each other, causing mean-spirited speculation that one was only hired because of the other one’s clout. (For example, an informative 1996 Independent article about what went wrong manages to refer to them as “Renny Harlin and his demanding wife.”) On top of all that, you know how it is with what I call the Old Timey Adventure genre. They almost always lose money, even when they’re great. That’s just how it is.
I’m not surprised to find that it’s not really some godforsaken what-were-they-thinking? catastrophe. But I’m sorry to report I was mostly bored. It could be said to be ahead of its time in that it has a similar feel to the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series that started eight years later – similar spectacle, stunts and repartee backed with a non-stop rousing score by John Debney (SUDDEN DEATH) – but the characters aren’t as charming or funny, the mythology is less captivating, the villains are boring (despite a few funny Frank Langella outbursts) and of course you don’t get the supernatural angle or related FX wizardry.
It starts out good though. “The notorious lady pyrate Morgan Adams” (Davis four years after THELMA & LOUISE), as a wanted poster calls her, is abandoning some dude in bed like James Bond might do to a woman. He reveals that he knows who she is and has a gun. She reveals that her monkey sidekick King Charles (Shayna the Monkey) has removed the ammo, but she calls it his “balls,” and holds them up to show how small they are.
Then she’s out the window and there’s some swash and/or buckle to rescue her father, Black Harry (Harris Yulin, MURDER AT 1600), from her uncle, Dawg Brown (Langella, the year after BRAINSCAN). But Black Harry is mortally wounded and tells her to shave his head. Cut to her carrying around his scalp with a map on it.
It seems there are three maps that together identify the location of the titular treasure island. The scalp, another map that Dawg has, and a third one that her uncle Mordechai (George Murcell, THE HEROES OF TELEMARK, in his last film, after Oliver Reed was fired for getting drunk and pulling his dick out) has. Morgan convinces her father’s crew to follow her and go after the maps (and then the treasure). But she needs a Latin translator, so she disguises herself as a respectable rich lady to try to purchase the servitude of doctor/thief/rascal/scoundrel William Shaw (Matthew Modine, who was doing FULL METAL JACKET while Langella was doing MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE) at a slave auction, but gets recognized and chased out of town. And the various pirates and authorities clash and what not, etc.
When Morgan gets shot, Dr. Shaw removes the bullet, and you guessed it, dumps it into a metal container. But I do think the gender swap makes the scene novel. She moans less than Banderas in DESPERADO, and still manages to show off her womanly curves while laying on the makeshift surgery table. (In his defense he was shot with more powerful ammunition.)
Sometimes Davis sounds a little weird talking tough and kind of old timey to a boat full of grizzled seamen, but she’s cool in the role. Especially when she has a monkey on her shoulder. She also has a loyal sidekick named Ainslee (Stan Shaw, a.k.a. Lincoln Tyler from SNAKE EYES). On one hand he’s cool and they seem to have a strong, respectful partnership. On the other hand he deserves to be more than the loyal black friend.
I’m sorry to say but I think the movie’s lack of spark comes down mainly to the casting of Modine. It’s a traditional/generic character that requires a specific type of strong charisma and/or chemistry to make it fly. This is like Jack Sparrow if Johnny Depp had played him the normal expected way, in which case I doubt that movie would’ve ever taken off. Modine now says it’s a good movie, and at the time complained that Harlin “never really spoke to” him.
I’m not sure how much better it would’ve been with the original star, Michael Douglas. He wanted his screen time to be equal to Davis’s, and quit when her role was expanded, proving he had no clue what was cool about the movie. Harlin’s struggle to find a replacement apparently led to much of the production problems (he made them rebuild a bunch of sets that were made while he was busy), not including the raw sewage that leaked into a water tank, the dozens of crew members who got pissed at Harlin and quit, or the constant food poisoning and heat exhaustion.
Of the many stars who reportedly turned down the role I’d guess maybe Jeff Bridges would’ve had the most potential to make it fun. Or Michael Keaton, but I can’t picture him in the outfit!
Anyway there’s quicksand and getting locked in the brig and mutiny and jumping off a cliff and all that. There’s definitely some cool shit in here. I was really impressed by a stunt where I’m pretty sure Davis herself flops out of a window and into the seat of a speeding carriage. I rewound it and wondered if it could possibly be a trick (there’s an unusual opening credit for digital visual effects) but I’m pretty sure it’s real, and it’s very much in the wheelhouse of stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong.
Another part I liked was a special effect where the camera follows her plummeting backwards off a balcony or something. Now it would be done more seamlessly and seem like nothing, but the way the coloring doesn’t quite match here reminds you what a feat it was to pull off in those days.
Of course digital effects were pretty limited at that time, so the climactic battle has lots of cannons and explosions and swinging on ropes that’s all very impressive stuntwork and pyrotechnics and stuff. The extravagance of the production that got it into trouble (including million dollar full scale ships in a giant hydraulic tank with a wave machine) is also what makes it kind of cool to look at, so I don’t really see the point of non-studio-executives shaming Harlin for his cost overruns. Unfortunately, without being very invested in the characters or their goals I was pretty checked out by that point and it just seemed like unending bombast.
As you’d expect, there are many credited writers. Story credit goes to Michael Frost Beckner (SNIPER) & James Gorman (producer of GUNMEN) and Bruce A. Evans (STARMAN, STAND BY ME, writer/director of KUFFS and MR. BROOKS) & Raynold Gideon (producer of ASSASSINS). Screenplay credit goes to Robert King (BLOODFIST, FULL CONTACT) and Marc Norman (BREAKOUT, THE KILLER ELITE, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE). And who knows who else got in there. This is either a symptom of or a recipe for losing control of the story.
Carolco was deeply in debt and felt their only bet was to cancel Paul Verhoeven’s CRUSADE starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and pray to God CUTTHROAT ISLAND was a hit. It sounds like they didn’t think it was likely, but it was either make this or make nothing.
So they made this. They spent at least $98 million and it opened in eleventh place. Below DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT! I shit you not. Glancing over reviews from the time it doesn’t seem critics were very open to it, but that doesn’t mean they were wrong. At least Roger Ebert thought it was “satisfactory,” especially if “you’re really into pirate movies.” Surprisingly the Razzies didn’t really have it out for CUTTHROAT, only nominating it for worst director. They focused most of their snotty negativity toward SHOWGIRLS and WATERWORLD – both better movies, of course. I’d say this proves those assholes never heard of BATMAN FOREVER, but they did nominate a song from it.
“CUTTHROAT ISLAND is better than BATMAN FOREVER!!!” raves outlawvern.com
See the movie that Roger Ebert calls “A SATISFACTORY MOVIE!!!”
Carolco founder Mario Kassar, who had kickstarted an era of mega-budget movies by giving Schwarzenegger $10 million and a private plane for TOTAL RECALL, still got paid $1 million for completing the movie, and moved to a job at Paramount. He reunited with Carolco partner Andrew Vajna to form C2 just to revive the TERMINATOR series. He’s only had 8 credits since CUTTHROAT ISLAND, three of them TERMINATOR-related, and one of those (TERMINATOR SALVATION) was after he’d already sold off the franchise.
In 2015 Kassar became chairman of the board of directors for a relaunched Carolco Pictures, prepared for “the best movies I will ever produce” to “restore the Carolco brand back to its rightful place in Hollywood.” But Kassar left the company the next year, the year after that it was renamed Recall Studios, and two years after that it became Pulse Evolution Group, Inc., “in recognition of the global market reputation of its major operating subsidiary, Pulse Evolution Corporation,” the “recognized pioneer and leading developer of hyper-realistic digital humans… popularly known for producing the animated digital human likeness of the late Michael Jackson that appeared in a live performance of the Billboard Music Awards in 2014.” They are currently working on “live entertainment properties and television show formats featuring the iconic Swedish pop group ABBA.”
But Canal+ purchased the Carolco library and name in bankruptcy court, so maybe there’ll be a CUTTHROAT ISLAND Youtube series or something.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.