1995. Directed by Renny Harlin.
Considered to be the biggest box office failure of all time, Renny Harlin’s robust pirate homage was doomed from its origin. The final movie produced by Carolco Pictures, Cutthroat Island is a remarkably average adventure story encased in staggering practical effects packaging. Taking a by the numbers approach to the tried and true swashbuckling formula, the film tells the story of a brash female captain and her ragtag crew who are searching for a fabled island that holds immeasurable wealth while being pursued by corrupt politicians and other unsavory nautical nomads.
Geena Davis was married to Harlin at the time of her casting, with Harlin intending for the role to springboard Davis into other action films. Michael Douglas was originally cast as her love interest, however, after countless difficulties, dozens of actors turned the role down and Matthew Modine was cast. Their chemistry has a flaccid quality that never attempts to break free of the script’s tired retreading of the genre, echoing the mediocre heart at the core of Cutthroat Island’s story. They’re supported by the wonderful Frank Langella as the villain and Maury Chaykin as a starstruck chronicler of piracy. Langella’s sweat soaked mad dog is the standout, but even his formidable talents can’t synthesize the idea that anyone had a good time making this film.
Robert King and Marc Norman’s script is presented as an inverted King Lear in an attempt to put a spin on the buried treasure formula, but there is never enough time. This is a film about action set pieces, and the plot exists only as a vehicle to get you to the next one. Peter Levy’s baked cinematography is surprisingly fun and loose, offsetting the oddness that taints the film. Filmed on location in Malta and Thailand for the sea battles, sunlight captures the cannon smoke and gunfire in a hail of fiery oranges and grainy turquoise, Sweeping, all too familiar, camera angles capture the naval carnage aerially until nosediving into perilous close ups of the swordplay. The explosions are the most impressive part, with one in particular being so devastating that the camera actually reverberates from the impact, taking the viewer directly into harm’s way.
Roger Cain and Keith Pain’s art direction is flawless. The film employed thousands of extras, hundred of replica weapons, and the ships were built to scale from the ground up. Maggie Gray’s period perfect set direction and Enrico Sabbatini’s grungy costumes combine with the practical effects to give Cutthroat Island an epic feeling that almost manages to overcome to narrative flaws.
Available now for digital rental, Cutthroat Island is an impressive piece of technical film making. Every element of the craft looks and feels authentic because they’re real. The irony is that the human elements, the acting and the plot, feel out of place and counterfeit, overshadowed by artistic obsession and a studio that couldn’t admit it had already died. Had the film been better marketed, it’s possible that it would have been more of a success, solely for the one of a kind craftsmanship that was involved in its construction. Come to see things blow up. Stay to see more things blow up. If you’re looking for a loyal pirate adventure piece with jaw dropping action, Cutthroat Island doesn’t disappoint.