Cutthroat Island

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 18th, 2019 at 12:54 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Cutthroat Island”

  1. Its biggest problem is really that it’s “just” a pirate movie. It does nothing different (well, maybe except having a female lead) than all the pirate movies from the 50s and 60s. I kinda admire it for its “I am what I am and this is a classic pirate movie” attitude, but there really is no reason for it to exist. I wouldn’t even call it bad. Just unimaginative.

  2. This one is only okay-ish. Langella is a whole lot of fun, though.

  3. I liked it precisesly because it was just a pirate movie in an era with no pirate movies and Geena Davis as the swashbuckler was a nice touch. Mind you I haven’t watched it since it first hit home video but I do remember making a dub of it back when it first did. Langella once again gave more than what was needed from him as the villain just like in MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE and the movie was all the better for it.

  4. I like to think of 90s adventure films as having a kind of Wold Newton thing happening. Of course, The Shadow and The Phantom, but also The Long Kiss Good Night and The Saint. Just the first Mission: Impossible. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, First Knight, DragonHeart. And I think Cutthroat Island now, too.

  5. I have always been partial to pirate movies. But even objectively speaking this one got treated undeservedly bad. Especially since it does excactly the same thing PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN does.

  6. POTC was an extremely entertaining fantasy comedy with a back then never-before-seen-in-a-blockbuster performance by Johnny Depp. CUTTHROAT was just another “Good pirates sail to an island to find a treasure before a bad pirate finds it first” adventure. Like I said, a solid one and I agree that it got unfairly treated, but the only things that make it stand out are its production history and that it was made in the 90s.

  7. And with that I mean POTC was also about good pirates racing bad pirates in a trasure hunt, but everything inbetween was way more memorable and most of all fresh.

  8. I agree when it comes to Depp. But Langella’s villain – and the swordfinghts – are way better in CUTTHROAT.

  9. I have fond but very generic memories of this one. I agree that if this had performed OK, or even just slightly underperformed it wouldn’t really be remembered except by its fans, as with most studio movies.

    It is surprisingly violent in places, much more so than the Sparrow movies. It was pretty heavily cut in the original UK releases for a family audience.

  10. I will say that “fond but generic memories” is more (or perhaps less but in the right way) than I can say for POTC 4+5.

  11. I actually think Vern undersells Modine. He did pretty good during the “damsel in distress” bits which now that I think about it this one was a bit ahead of the curve with all the gender swapping moments. Don’t remember if it really got credit back then since I didn”t really read the reviews.

    POTC did have Depp as the saving grace but I do agree that this one had better stunts and swordfights. I still think the one thing I enjoyed most out of POTC was the zombie factor. I had never seen the trailers or watched the thing till it hit video but it was a very unexpected surprise that elevated the movie for me. A shame that the sequels completely ran the supernatural elements to the ground. Maybe they should’ve been more like CUTTHROAT ISLAND.

  12. Meant to type “so it was” not *but….

  13. Oh, that scamp Oliver Reed, always getting drunk and pulling his dick out…

    Anyways, still need to see this, if only to check it off the list. Putting it in the book.

  14. I think it’s easy to forget what a weird idea basing a whole movie off of a theme park ride was at the time the first POTC movie was coming out, but I also think the more fantastical elements of the movie really helped set it apart. “Cursed zombie pirate ghosts” is a lot more hook-y than “it’s like TREASURE ISLAND, but more violent! There’s a girl!”

    I know I watched this one a ton as a kid with my sisters, but I really don’t remember much about it at all. THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT was much more my jam at the time in terms of Gina Davis action.

  15. Glad you finally got to this one, Vern! I think my frustration had to do with just how good Long Kiss Goodnight is; to me it’s one of the most under-rated films of all time. This one, well, much more correctly-rated.

    Other than Stranger Things, I think Matthew Modine has brought down every film/project I’ve ever seen him in. But I’ll always have a soft spot for him yelling at Julianne Moore, in the very strange Robert Altman film Short Cuts, “Marianne …. you’re not wearing any panties!”


  16. Vern, Stan Shaw played Morgan’s sidekick and Patrick Malahide is the Redcoat baddie – he’s a fixture (usually as a villain or bent copper) on British TV.

    Pretty tedious film, though, with the exception of Frank Langella who never phones it in. Saw an interview with him and he talks about things like this and MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, saying he always learns something, even in the bad movies.

    I also have a soft spot for Matthew Modine shouting “A ship! I find myself being fired upon by an entire ship!” or something similar and the score is absolutely amazing.

    I think the problem is that, although they look the part, Davis and Modine are just too sort of ‘modern’ for the setting.

  17. Thank you. Right person, wrong name. I fixed it.

  18. I watched this again last year. I also enjoyed the stunts, and still felt a headache-y feeling coming on from getting too bored. Also I think I didn’t understand that Matthew Modine and Cary Elwes were two different people/actors until that day. Their voices sound identical to me most of the time.

  19. The ’90s had a lot of failed action-adventurer films that were inspired or based on school-type of adventure films. I think there was one action-adventure film from the ’90s that was really good, and I don’t think VERN has reviewed and that is THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS that was released the year after in 1996. While Val Kilmer had a lot of failure in the ’90s trying to break out as a blockbuster star – rather than the character actor and scene-stealer he was in films like TOMBSTONE and HEAT – with BATMAN FOREVER (artistic failure not a financial one), THE SAINT and THE ISLAND OF DR. MORNEAU, THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS was pretty good, but also didn’t do very well in theater, but this one deserved to be remembered.

  20. I think the big question is, how the hell did PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN become such a big hit when there are all these really good pirate films that bombed? Is it just Depp or timing or what?

    THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS is really good.

  21. I remember watching this on VHS as a kid and liking it ok, that would have been 1996, I remember that because we hadn’t been living in the house my family was living in at the time for long.

    However I attempted to re-watch it in 2015 and turned it off pretty quickly since I got bored fast.

    Still, the score is amazing.

  22. Oh yeah and it’s also pretty sad has fast that revived Carolco failed.

  23. The frantic search to replace Michael Douglas led to a quote that totally cracked me up from an interview with Charlie Sheen in either Premiere or Movieline, I can’t remember which. Apparently they wouldn’t meet Sheen’s asking price at the time. Sheen explained to the magazine (paraphrasing from memory, of course, but I think this is pretty close): “It’s not like it’s some art film. You’re in some costume? Fighting on some ship? You gotta pay!”

  24. Modine actually is a trained swordsman, so the decision can’t have been that hard.

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