CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995)
A female pirate and her companion race against their rivals to find a hidden island that contains treasure.
Officially the biggest box office disaster of all time, it’s tempting to approach Cutthroat Island with optimism. Maybe mid-1990s audiences just weren’t ready for a pirate movie revival, so there’s hope it may be ripe for reappraisal like another disaster from the same year — Waterworld (1995) — which has been somewhat rehabilitated by more forgiving audiences in recent times. Alas, Cutthroat Island has only worsened with age, now we’re a couple of decades on from Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) discovering the key to success was mixing the supernatural with a swashbuckling adventure.
The story of how Cutthroat Island flopped is more interesting and entertaining than the film itself, but for what it’s worth the story follows 17th-century female pirate Morgan Adams (Geena Davis) on a quest to find the titular treasure island. To do this, she must combine three pieces of a map her father and two uncles — including dastardly Dawg Brown (Frank Langella) — have in their possession. Along the way, Morgan enlists the help of Latin-speaking thief William Shaw (Matthew Modine) to translate the combined map, while avoiding corrupt Governor Ainslee (Patrick Malahide) because there’s a bounty on her head.
The screenplay is the biggest problem with Cutthroat Island, so it’s galling to be reminded it was co-written by Robert King— who subsequently went on to co-create the excellent legal dramas The Good Wife (2009–2016) and The Good Fight (2017–2022) with his wife Michelle. Although it’s worth remembering King got his start writing B Movie trash like the martial arts film Bloodfist (1989) and slasher horror Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge (1989), so this was part of a move into “respectability” beginning with the comedy Clean Slate (1994) and Speechless (1994) — the latter produced by Geena Davis and her then-husband Renny Harlin, star and director of Cutthroat Island respectively.
Regardless, King and co-writer Marc Norman’s script has a simple structure but lacks personality, grace, wit, and charm. It’s often hard to know what’s going on and why we should care about this adventure our heroes are on… but given the production troubles, there’s a chance the narrative was cut to shreds in the editing bay. Whatever happened, the result is a movie that doesn’t flow well, or find interesting ways to introduce its characters and let us get to know them through their actions. And if you don’t get audiences onside early — so we grasp everyone’s motivations, warm to the heroes, and love to hate the villains — it’s hard to turn things around after such a poor start.
Renny Harlin’s career was going well until Cutthroat Island, having come to widespread attention with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988), before making a name for himself in the action genre following the success of Die Hard 2 (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993). Cutthroat Island was doomed from the start because the production company, Carolco, was in serious debt and only bankrolled the film for $60M as a last-ditch effort to survive. It simply had to be a major hit or their days were numbered. It was a bold move from the Carolco, as the studio cancelled an Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring medieval epic called Crusade to help finance Cutthroat, and sold their $20M stakes in films like Stargate (1994) and Showgirls (1995). In retrospect, they backed the wrong horse! It would have made more sense to bet on Schwarzenegger, hot after True Lies (1994), making a return to Conan-esque territory.
The decision to cast Geena Davis as Morgan Adams was driven by nepotism because she was Harlin’s wife, although this arrangement worked out well for their partnership on the following year’s The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) — no doubt because that movie had a script by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) behind it. Davis is awful in Cutthroat Island, often performing her fights as if it’s a half-speed rehearsal—with overly deliberate movements. Playing a feisty pirate whom men underestimate because of her gender is a clever twist on convention, but there’s no energy or fun to Morgan. Davis even looks a little scared by the capuchin monkey that often sits on her shoulder, in place of a parrot.
Davis’s flat and boring performance isn’t helped by the fact she has no chemistry with her supposed love interest Matthew Modine. Michael Douglas had originally been cast in Modine’s part, perhaps intending to inject some Romancing the Stone (1984) roguish charm into the project, but he quit once it became clear his character would have less screen time than Morgan. Interestingly, Davis herself wanted to exit once Douglas walked away, but couldn’t wriggle out of the contract.
The many other problems during production are almost legendary now: Oliver Reed was hired to play Morgan’s uncle Mordechai Fingers, but was dismissed after getting into a bar fight and drunkenly trying to expose himself to Davis; Harlin fired the chief camera operator after an argument, prompting two dozen members of the crew to walk out in solidarity; raw sewage leaked into the tank actors were going to swim in; cinematographer Oliver Wood was replaced by Peter Levy after falling off a crane and breaking his leg; and Harlin was forced to spend $1M of his own money to rewrite the script because Carolco couldn’t afford to. In a later interview, Modine also revealed that finances weren’t helped by Harlin and Davis insisting on having cases of V8 Vegetable Juice shipped out to them throughout the shoot, most of which had to be drunk by the crew after they discovered a room full of unopened juice cartons.
Are there positives to Cutthroat Island? A few. Frank Langella’s good value as the villain, even if he’s not given much to do. He at least has a presence and looks suitably sweaty and sexy as Dawg Brown. There are moments of action that work fairly well, too, mostly during the climax when it feels like Harlin’s doing his best to deliver enough visual spectacle to make you forget we don’t care about what’s happening and why. There are some practical explosions that are also incredible to behold, especially as we’re now so accustomed to VFX blasts because it’s easier and safer. I enjoy the sense of old-fashioned practicality to Cutthroat Island, made during a time when blockbusters weren’t yet shot almost entirely against greenscreen — although it does mean the ship battle at the end is rather boring and slow, even if that’s realistic!
There are also some beautiful locations and sets to admire in Malta and Thailand where they filmed — many of which Harlin ordered be rebuilt because he didn’t like what was initially constructed while away from set trying to replace Michael Douglas.
John Debney’s (Hocus Pocus) soundtrack is easily the best thing about Cutthroat Island, and it’s a shame his music is forever tethered to a bad movie. He crafts some stirring moments, even if the scenes they’re set against often feel worse because what you’re seeing doesn’t equal the quality of what you’re hearing. Nevertheless, in isolation, Debney does some fine work for a film that came relatively early in his ongoing career.
Ultimately, Cutthroat Island hasn’t improved with age and still cuts a disappointing shape as an action-adventure movie. The fundamental issues are on the page, with dull characters and a storyline that doesn’t capture your imagination. It lacks the sparkle and wit all pirate adventures need, and perhaps ’90s filmgoers wanted something considerably more appealing in order to give this attempted pirate film revival a chance — a subgenre even deader than the western by this point, being mostly a bag full of cliches about walking the plank and peg legs. But while some may claim it’s an interesting precursor to the Pirates of the Caribbean saga, it’s more a great example of why big action films require good stories and likeable characters if they’re to succeed.
USA • ITALY • GERMANY • FRANCE | 1995 | 124 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • SPANISH • LATIN • FRENCH
This is an excellent transfer to 4K Ultra HD, with incredible details in the image and natural colours that are brought to life thanks to the Dolby Vision HDR. Black levels are great and there’s no sign of compression artefacts, making this disc an easy recommendation on a visual level.
The Dolby DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also terrific, although an upgrade to DTS:X would have been preferable. The separation of the channels feels great and there are plenty of sound effects to immerse you into the action sequences, especially the atmospheric elements like storms and the creaking of wood.
director: Renny Harlin.
writer: Robert King & Marc Norman (story by Michael Frost Beckner, James Gorman, Bruce A. Evans & Raynold Gideon).
starring: Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, Frank Langella, Maury Chaykin, Patrick Malahide & Stan Shaw.