It’s difficult to watch Cutthroat Island today without examining it as an artifact of enormous loss, financial and otherwise; here is a movie that bankrupted a studio (Carolco); killed, wounded, or paralyzed a lot of careers; and left the pirate movie subgenre for dead. If it’s not quite as immediately notorious to the general public as fellow mega-flops Last Action Hero or Isthar, that may be because far fewer people actually saw Cutthroat Island; it’s a true flop, no mere financial disappointment.
It’s almost as if no audiences were hungering to see Geena Davis play a pirate. Nonetheless, she soldiers through the role of Morgan Adams, daughter of a pirate and newly appointed captain of his ship, outwitting British law and out-fighting fellow pirates led by her uncle (Frank Langella). Being a big-budget pirate adventure, the basic ingredients of Cutthroat—fast-talking ne’er-do-well, lady adventurer, monkey sidekick, MacGuffin-y treasure maps, Caribbean locales—are not so dissimilar to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy; this film’s failure is also why the success of the first Disney Pirates surprised so many.
Indeed, the movie now functions as an unintentional tribute to the more inventive excesses of the Jerry Bruckheimer franchise; even at its knottiest, the latter overflows with imagery and an iconic Johnny Depp performance. Cutthroat Island is now most striking for its vast physical sets and hundreds of extras (as it may have been back in 1995), and also the way these things now seem old-fashioned, even quaint. The movie looks handsome on Blu-Ray—actual explosions do age better than various CGI fireworks, at least on a level of pure tactile believability—but its production values remain unlikely to win it even a cult following, primarily because of its flat, uninvolving characterizations.
Many of Geena Davis’ best performances have been in movies with a touch of Old Hollywood: A League of Their Own and Hero, both from 1992, may reflect modern attitudes about gender or heroism, but they employ throwback techniques, taking elements of screwball comedy and forties melodrama and matching well with Davis’ earnest wariness. Cutthroat‘s swashbuckling certainly qualifies as retro, but it’s missing crucial humanity for Davis to latch on to, and she looks half-lost, half-businesslike in the elaborate cartoon version of the seventeenth century, trying to power through.
It’s difficult to blame Davis for the miscasting, though. Director Renny Harlin—then dating his leading lady!—can sometimes work minor wonders with pulpy trash, sequels and knockoffs like Die Hard 2 or Deep Blue Sea, but high-spirited adventure isn’t his forte. His second try at turning his special lady into an action hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight, is more compatible both with his agreeably junky aesthetic and Davis’ plainspoken pathos (Goodnight bombed, too, but not nearly as spectacularly as the pirate movie). Here he keeps throwing in slow-motion shots of stunts that would be a lot more thrilling at regular speed, and lets the cranked-up musical score stay in a near-constant state of crescendo.
His commentary track is the lone major extra on the Blu-Ray edition, and it’s too sedate to provide much insight. Though it’s imported from a previous DVD release, Harlin’s commentary was at least recorded after the film flopped (in the US, Harlin notes, although its foreign grosses didn’t compensate much), in contrast to most current commentaries, which are typically handled after the movie is finished but before its theatrical release. Harlin speaks in his usual calm, even tones about the film’s problems—now-typical stories of on-set screenwriting and logistical difficulties.
Harlin sounds sincere about his desire to “entertain and move every 12-year-old” with his pirate adventure, but, perhaps tellingly, he seems more engaged with the locations, sets, and costumes than the characters or actors, who he rarely mentions by name. It’s the trailers, included on the Blu-Ray edition along with an “archival” (read: old, leftover) featurette, that ultimately do the best job of distilling the film’s scope into a marketable-looking romp—some of the limp wisecracks are actually better-timed and therefore more effective in the ads.
Given the problems Harlin describes, the film itself is polished enough; it’s more hokey than unwatchable. But its place in film history is assured by how few people wanted to watch it; if it weren’t for all that money down the drain, Cutthroat Island would be downright forgettable.