Being the week upon which Talk Like A Pirate Day falls, I opted to look at a pirate flick for this week’s Netflix Review. So, grab your cutlass, affix your patch and wooden legs – we’re headed for Cutthroat Island.
Directed by Renny Harlin, Cutthroat Island is a movie that was made too early for its time, cursed by the financial woes from a dying studio. But despite its weaknesses, the movie does capture the fun element most remembered in some of the old Errol Flynn classics, and has matured into a movie that audiences can enjoy without taking it too seriously.
The plot follows a notorious wanted female pirate named Morgan Adams (Geena Davis) who finds a treasure map tattooed on the scalp of her dead father. The map is one third of the full piece, with one in the hands of Adams’ uncle, and another in the grubby evil mitts of antagonist Dawg Brown (Frank Langella). Taking command of her father’s ship and crew, and taking doctor and linguist William Shaw (Matthew Modine) on board, she leads a crusade to find the treasure of Cutthroat Island. It develops into a race against time as Brown chases Adams down, across the treacherous waters of the Caribbean.
While the thematic substance of the movie sounds like an action epic, the movie was plagued by a poor showing outcome at the box office. In fact, it fared so poorly that it’s since become considered one of the biggest box office flops of all time.
To be open-minded, much of the criticism laid at the feet of Cutthroat Island was most certainly influenced by the morale of the time. By 1995, there was a darker esteem at the time, with many countries starting to clamber out of recession; and if the music scene was anything to judge of the era at the time, there was less flashiness and more serious tones of gritty realism. The world at the time had very little need for a swashbuckling adventure that felt more of a tribute to the age of Errol Flynn.
Additionally, the studio that produced Cutthroat Island, Carolco, was in a catastrophic financial situation at the time. While they went ahead with the production, by the time the release was out little was done to promote the movie. As a result, the movie media looked at the bottom line – a budget of $98 million, and a gross of $10 million… the damage was a staggering result of the lack of marketing for the movie, and it was labeled one of the biggest flops of all time; and even won a Razzie.
I think it’s important to keep these elements in mind while watching this movie. While the production values do lack shine because of the poor financial support, in many ways, the movie was a little ahead of its time. Over ten years later and Disney would be turning Johnny Depp into Captain Jack Sparrow for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; a series that is similar in tone and theme to Cutthroat Island. So there is a gem element to the film.
Having said that, the movie is obviously not a perfect jewel, as it is riddled with imperfections and tarnishing here and there. The dialogue at times is poorly constructed, and it seems that the direction disallowed any natural evolution from actors’ input and improvisation. The wisecracks are clearly developed to reflect the Errol Flynn gags from the classics, with some 90’s sexual innuendo thrown in to adjust for inflation, but fall flat in many places, and are even somewhat groanworthy.
Notwithstanding this, there are many elements worth noting as positive points of the film. The action sequences, choreography, and stunt work are timeless classics, based on the “old hat” memorable Errol Flynn actions but updated with strong techniques adapted and used in 1970’s and 1980’s filmmaking. The musical score is also brilliant, and epic in scale. The camera work is also noteworthy, with an opening sequence that is brilliant in its spectacle (though, do note, it is coated with cheese… but even nachos taste better with cheese).
Truly, this is what makes the movie worth watching in many ways: it’s simply a lot of fun. During the time it was made, the production obviously took the movie content way too seriously; making it hard for audiences of the grungy 1990’s to digest. In this, Cutthroat Island has aged very well – the fact that it’s taken too seriously, provides the opposite effect for viewers – it becomes one of those films that you can look at lightheartedly, with many of the cheesy elements (especially the cringeworthy one-liners) inspiring a bit of a laugh or a smile. With this in mind, I’ve often found it hard to believe that the movie hasn’t developed a cult following – but perhaps that may still come with time.
Bearing that in mind, do not bother looking too deep for any symbolism or subtext throughout Cutthroat Island. Quite simply, it’s just not there, and if it is, it’s obscured by that nacho cheese I mentioned. The movie is surface plot only, but that may actually be by design – Cutthroat Island is intended primarily (as mentioned earlier) to be a fun pirate film, and nothing more than that.
Performance-wise, Geena Davis does a passable action lady role in the movie, though it often falls short in a “leading lady pretending to be an action man” way… she has some solid acting chops as many of you know, and she clearly wasn’t given chance and occasion to flesh out and allow her character to evolve. Matthew Modine does okay also as Shaw, providing much of the above-mentioned cheese for your pirate nachos. Frank Langella, on the other hand, is – as always – uncontaminated brilliance. Whatever movie this man is in, he puts in beyond 100%. And that includes Masters of the Universe. Shut up and stop laughing – I like that movie; he was awesome as Skeletor.
Cutthroat Island is a film that holds true to its pirate movie roots, but was released out of time in my mind. It’s a flick worth putting on if you’re after a simple fun movie without requiring too much thought. It’s fun, it’s a laugh, and it is worth popping in your queue to watch at some stage.
Overall Rating: 3 out of 5… with a jalapeno for your nacho cheese