Lionsgate // 1995 // 119 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // August 11th, 2009
The course has been set. There is no turning back. Prepare your weapons. Summon your courage. Discover the adventure of a lifetime!
There are movies that are disappointing, there are movies that are bombs, and then there are those few that bring down movie studios. Cleopatra almost killed Twentieth Century Fox, Heaven's Gate pretty much destroyed United Artists, and Cutthroat Island -- which the Guinness Book of World Records at one point recognized as the biggest flop of all time -- sunk Carolco Pictures. Now this swashbuckling piece of cinematic history comes to Blu-ray.
Strangely enough, despite a budget in excess of $100 million (in 1995 dollars), the backstory and aftermath of Cutthroat Island is far more interesting than anything that ended up on the screen. I won't recant it here, since it is well-documented and irrelevant to a review of the finished product, but suffice it to say, director Renny Harlin's marriage to female lead Geena Davis did not serve the film well.
Cutthroat Island is pretty much a pirate movie by the numbers. There's a long-lost buried treasure somewhere, a series of hard-to-decipher treasure maps, and lots of violent seamen. The one unique aspect is that the captain of the pirate ship is a female, the tough-as-nails Morgan (Davis, Tootsie). Unfortunately, this deviation from the template is also probably the most prominent of many missteps.
It's not so much that a female pirate couldn't work, but that Davis is unsuited for the role. She is a capable actress, but playing a grizzled sixteenth century pirate is way beyond her range. It doesn't help that she seems to look and speak the same as she would in a contemporary film. Compound this with the fact that her husband (allegedly) had the script changed so that his wife is in nearly every frame of the film, and you've got almost two hours of nonstop incredulity.
Co-star Matthew Modine (who filled in after just about every other able-bodied male with a SAG card passed) is serviceable as the male lead, but his wisecracking can hardly make up for a lifeless movie and lame script.
Make no mistake, the script is where the trouble lies. They say a great script can be ruined by a great director, but a bad script can't be saved by a great director. Well, I don't think Renny Harlin is a great director, so it's no surprise that he breathes little life into the screenplay full of pirate clichés and lame jokes. He does an adequate job with expensive set pieces, but even with these there are several stumbles, such as horrible green screen effects and distracting cutting within scenes between night and day shots.
Occasionally there are box-office failures that are only misunderstood or admirably overambitious. Cutthroat Island is neither. It's a film that panders to its audience with lots of explosions and cringe-inducing wordplay and ends up just being insufferable.
It might seem strange to do such abrupt about-face, but one of the film's few assets is the enormous budget, and almost all of the money shows up on screen. The Blu-ray 1080p picture shows off Harlin's impressively painstaking job of recreating sixteenth century society, including some beautiful settings in the Caribbean. The daytime scenes are presented in exquisite detail, so that even a limited color palette jumps off the screen.
Another of the film's assets is the loud and bombastic score by John Debney. While it would have probably been too distracting for a film with a compelling plot, here Debney's overbearing drums, cymbals, and horns provide something to admire other than the intricate scenery and set design. Additionally, the countless gun battles, sword fights, and explosions make the soundtrack an aural feast in a DTS 7.1 sound design.
Shockingly, Renny Harlin was sport enough to provide a director's commentary on this disc, and I salute him for that -- especially since commentary tracks on bad movies are often more entertaining than those of good movies, which can easily delve into a self-congratulatory spiral. Here, Harlin acknowledges many of the film's troubles, but overall seems to have little regret, especially because he was able to bring so much of his pirate fantasies to life.
In addition to the commentary there is a six-minute promotional featurette and two trailers.
Hasn't Carolco been punished enough?
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13