Movie Review – Cutthroat Island

Rousing, crowd-pleasing pirate film is also regarded as one of Hollywood’s biggest flops – I don’t understand why, to be honest. Cutthroat Island is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Epic action, an equally epic music score by John Debney, and a touch of comic whimsy scattered throughout the B-grade characters and dialogue, make Cutthroat Island a love-it-or-hate-it pirate film: personally, I think it’s fabulous.


– Summary –

Director : Renny Harlin
Year Of Release : 1995
Principal Cast : Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, Frank Langella, Maury Chakin, Patrick Malahide, Stan Shaw, Rex Linn, Harris Yulin.
Approx Running Time : 119 Minutes
Synopsis: A female pirate captain and her educated slave take on a mission to locate an enormous treasure – in order to do so, they must retrieve three parts of the map to locating it. All along, they’re pursued by the Governor of Jamaica, who seeks to stop the pirates once and for all.
What we think : Rousing, crowd-pleasing pirate film is also regarded as one of Hollywood’s biggest flops – I don’t understand why, to be honest. Cutthroat Island is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Epic action, an equally epic music score by John Debney, and a touch of comic whimsy scattered throughout the B-grade characters and dialogue, make Cutthroat Island a love-it-or-hate-it pirate film: personally, I think it’s fabulous.


You’ve all heard the stories, right? The one about how Cutthroat Island caused the closure of a major Hollywood studio, and gave the film industry pause to ever mount a Pirate-themed film ever again. Sure, Cutthroat Island cost Carolco Pictures a staggering $90m to make, and raked in a considerably underwhelming $10m in domestic gross, and yeah, the studio folded quite quickly after this, but does the negative press surrounding it make the general hatred towards it justified? Is it such a bad film? I say no, and I’m going to explain why you should enjoy it too.

If this cart bounces again, you’re gonna see both my “islands”!!!

Morgan Adams (Geena Davis), a female pirate stealing loot throughout the Caribbean region, discover a map to a hidden treasure of unimaginable wealth – the map comes in three separate parts, and since none of them can read, they decide to buy an educated slave (Matthew Modine) in order to decode the map. Intent on stopping them, the Governor of Port Royal, Ainslee (Patrick Malahide) sends his troops in pursuit. Also on the hunt for the treasure is Morgan’s cruel, hate-filled Uncle, Dawg (Frank Langella, himself a pirate and competitor of Morgans, and it is he who hold one of the pieces to the map. Sword fights, battles between pirate ships, chases and massive bar brawls: Cutthroat Island skimps on nothing in its attempt to entertain in the most bawdy possible way.

Dawggy wanna bone?

On the surface, there’s no reason why Cutthroat Island should have been as unsuccessful as it was. The production value, the cast, the wall-to-wall action – every facet of a good action film is in place, including a then-white hot director in Renny Harlin, who’d come off massive success with Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger. Geena Davis was a well known face thanks to her turn in Ridley Scott’s Thelma And Louise, and co-star Matthew Modine was a solid box-office draw thanks to films like Pacific Heights, Full Metal Jacket and Memphis Belle. Frank Langella, cast as the villanous Dawg, was a perfect fit for the character, chewing through scenery and delivering such an OTT performance it is impossible not to grin while watching him. The rest of the cast slid into their varied roles with ease, thanks to some sumptuous costuming and some excellent make-up effects. Externally, Cutthroat Island looked to be an enormous amount of fun.

Seriously, you’re in a pirate film and you can’t swim?

The films script, by Robert King and Marc Norman, delivered full scale action set-pieces and traditional pirate-themed fare with flair and a fearlessness not seen since the truly execrable Pirate Movie (based on the Gilbert & Sullivan Pirates Of Penzance musical) and filled with all the touchstones pirate films had used since they were first placed on film. Even the “parrot on the shoulder” makes an appearance, just in case anybody though they didn’t cover it all. Uniquely, the central role was a woman, which is perhaps part of the reason for Island’s lack of success. Geena Davis gave the role her all, and I think she succeeded in making a strong, liberated female character work in a world in which is typcially shouldn’t. Unafraid to use her sexuality to exploit a situation, Morgan is a wiley, strong woman, and Davis does her justice. Matthew Modine, on the other hand, isn’t perhaps the strongest male lead to accompany her, and I still have a problem with the fact that he’s purposely a weaker character in order to make Morgan seem stronger – a reversal of the male/female dynamic in this instance, considering the setting of the film, seems a little bizarre, but I can understand the principle behind it. Modine does well as the intellectual William Shaw, his flirtation with Morgan just sparkly enough to allow their natural chemistry to eventually draw them together.

I’m a woman surrounded by horny men – how can a girl get so lucky?

Central villain Frank Langella strides through this film with all the testosterone Davis doesn’t have. He’s a pirates pirate, a scumbag of the highest order, the scurvy dog and flea infested mongrel you’d hate to meet on the high seas. Langella growls his dialogue constantly, and his performance is the perfect dark foil for the lightness of the Modine/Davis combo. A constant thorn in the side of this film, at least as far as narrative goes, is Patrick Malahide’s foppish, “Officer Class” Governor Ainslee, who seems almost diffident to the goings-on within the film. Perhaps more comedic than intended, Malahide’s dry delivery brings a droll wit to proceedings every time he’s on screen. His second-in-command, Captain Trotter, is played with wonderful dim-wittedness by Angus Wright (who would go on to work with directors as diverse as Ridley Scott, Gillian Armstrong and Roger Donaldson) and it’s he, along with Dawg, who creates the clash of wills between the Law and the Lawless. The rest of the cast, including Rex Linn, the wonderfully cool Stan Shaw, and even Harris Yulin, all deliver excellent back-up roles; everyone in this film seems to be having a great deal of fun.

Sneaking up by boat wasn’t easy, but they’d try!

So why the hate for Cutthroat Island? The script is what you’d class as “swashbuckling”, the tongue-in-cheek style reminiscent of, or perhaps basking in the shadow of, the aforementioned Gilbert & Sullivan. The films delightfully wry tone seems content to allow even the most obnoxious character to be enjoyed and appreciated by the viewer, a kind of wink-wink to the audience which draws you into the story. Sure, this isn’t a great literary adventure like, say, Master & Commander, but then, it does exactly what a good pirate film should – it entertains. The inevitable comparisons with more recent pirate fare, in which Johnny Depp steals not only the treasure but the whole show, seem to indicate less a problem with each film per se, and more to do with the likability of the leading cast. Sure, Davis isn’t Johnny Depp, but Morgan Adams is a completely different archetype than Jack Sparrow, so to compare the two is much like the old chalk-and-cheese analogy. And yet, any internet forum in which Cutthroat Island is even mentioned, the film is usually ripped to shreds by critics and bloggers alike, who seem to think the film is “terrible”. I’ve yet to read any actual critical deconstruction in which a salient argument is put forward as to exactly why the film is terrible, and I welcome those willing to try. Perhaps it’s a vogue thing to hate this film, as if somehow its commercial failure is somehow indicative of its creative shortcomings. Untrue: Cutthroat Island is an exciting, fun adventure ride a lot like Raiders Of The Lost Ark – the villains seem hammy, the large-scale set pieces are mind-blowing, and there’s a gleeful wonderment at the silliness of it all.

Not quite the same as mano-e-mano, but cool nonetheless!

Director Renny Harlin, still a few years away from crap like Driven, Exorcist: The Beginning and 12 Rounds, delivers a full-throttle adventure ride of a film, perhaps even moreso than the Pirates of The Caribbean films did. There’s gunfire, explosions, ship-to-ship battles and swords to boot. Harlin has a handle on large-scale action, and his camera is thrown about into every set-piece with a sense of derring-go much like the characters on the screen. Like Michael Bay a decade later, Harlin knows how to shoot an explosion, and he knows how to edit a shoot-out. The action is breathtaking, genuinely epic in scale and size, and I dare anyone to argue that the finale of the film, in which two pirate ships and their crews to head-to-head in battle, to be anything other than thrilling. Cutthroat Island is like a theme park ride, pre-dating Disney’s cinematic venture into ride-come-film by nearly ten years. Yes, it’s silly, no, it’s not believable in any sense, but gosh-darn-it, I enjoyed the hell out of this film. It’s not meant to be serious, nor is it meant to stimulate your intellect with some sort of dialect of the human condition – it’s a pirate film, and an explosive one at that.

No seriously, I found you!

Another highlight of Cutthroat Island is the score, written by John Debney. I daresay that anyone who watches this film will come away utterly captivated with the pitch-perfect score for this film: the adventurous orchestral riffs and John William’s-esque sense of grandeur and freedom in Debney’s score is exactly the swashbuckling mood-setter you imagine a pirate film to have. From the opening overture, to the sweeping horns of the adventure moments, and the gentle lilt of the sly, devious character moments, Debney’s score touches all the right moments with just the right mood. I’d even go as far to say that I don’t think I’ve ever seen and heard a more perfect score for the accompanying visuals. For that alone, Cutthroat Island is worth a look.

If I was in your shoes, would YOU stand about and chat while the boat was sinking?

If there are any problems with the film, you’d be a hard-hearted cynic to worry about them too much, or let them interfere with your enjoyment of the movie. I guess those who dismiss this film as a debacle don’t “get” the female led premise of the movie overall, which is a shame because I don’t think Davis is all that bad in the role. Sure, she looks like she’s just stepped out of a photo shoot for Vogue, with her gleaming teeth and heaving bosom flashing across the screen the entire time, but how much more would folks have hated this film had she been a haggard old biddy? This is simple, unashamed entertainment, the kind of film made simply to have a blast at the cinema. There’s not a serious bone in this film’s body, and I despair at the constant haranguing Cutthroat Island endures. If you enjoy the simple things, and can appreciate a film which exists merely to entertain you for a few hours with explosions and bloodless violence, then Cutthroat Island will do the job perfectly. Avast, me hearties!







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12 thoughts on “Movie Review – Cutthroat Island

  1. 9 stars!!! haha I love it that you're sticking up for this movie because I remember quite enjoying it but 9 stars!??? Wowsers! Real shame that Carolco got taken down by this. Didn't have to be like that. sob

    1. Yeah, I gave it 9 stars because I still think it hits all the marks as an entertainment spectacle. I think I gave Starship Troopers the same mark for the same reason!

  2. I've never seen this one but I know it's one of the biggest flops that actually bankrupt the studio. I don't know if that's why Geena Davis also went down with it?? I'm not really into this type of movies but glad you enjoyed this one Rodney.

    1. I don't think Geena Davis quite knew what to do with her career – nor did a lot of film producers, I imagine, considering she's so hard to cast in a role where she's nothing but the leading lady. Thanks for swinging by, Ruth!

  3. I can't forgive this film for being the deciding factor in the demise of Carolco Pictures – they had produced some of my favourite 80s films. That it left Geena Davis' career in tatters wasn't that bad a thing though.

    1. @ Scott – If you haven't seen it yet, you should – even if you disagree with my opinion totally. 😉

      @ Al K Hall – Awesome. Not much more I can say, really. When the apocalypse happens, I hope Modine goes first.

      @ Dan – Fair point, but I still say the film itself is good. You don't like Geena Davis? Good lord son, why ever not?

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