Cutthroat Island (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Renny Harlin, whose previous directorial efforts include Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, seems fond of big, explosive action pictures. Unfortunately, excepting his debut (the middle film in the Die Hard trilogy), plot coherency hasn't been a particularly important attribute of his movies. Cliffhanger was little more than a series of spectacular stunts linked together by a paper-thin story. If anything, the strands of logic in Cutthroat Island are even thinner. Fortunately, as a spectacle for the eye and ear, this high seas adventure is more than capable of capturing its audience's attention. Holding it for more than two hours is a different matter altogether...

By his own admission, Harlin patterned Cutthroat Island loosely after Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, with his real-life wife, Geena Davis, taking the Errol Flynn role. However, while the special effects and explosions here far outstrip Hollywood's early pirate movies, storyline, characterization, and acting are vastly inferior. Thus, while Cutthroat Island may have cost $70 million to produce, it's still a pale shadow of its predecessors.

The "twist" here, as already mentioned, is that the hero is a female. Davis doesn't plumb her acting skills deeply in this shallow portrayal of Morgan Adams, the captain of a pirate ship called the "Morning Star." It's 1668 in the Caribbean, and she's on a treasure hunt. Millions of pounds of gold are reportedly buried somewhere on Cutthroat Island, but the map to the treasure location is in three separate pieces, and Morgan possesses only one. Each of the other sections is held by her uncles. While Morgan is willing to make deals and share the wealth to put the maps together, her Uncle Dawg (Frank Langella) would rather take the more expedient route of killing everyone who gets in his way -- including his niece.

The love interest, Shaw (the male Olivia DeHavilland?), is played in typically lackluster fashion by Matthew Modine (replacing Michael Douglas, who bowed out at the last moment). Modine has absolutely no chemistry with co-star Davis, and watching these two together is about as exciting as sitting through those dumb slideshow commercials that precede movies in many theaters. Frank Langella, who has apparently joined Dennis Hopper and James Woods as good foaming-at-the-mouth stock villains, does his usual shtick, although he's somehow not all that menacing here.

Cutthroat Island is more entertaining for its dumb storyline and overt silliness than for its nearly nonstop action. Technology plays its part in what the film has to offer, as well. Some of the visuals are breathtaking (especially a scene where a pirate ship explodes). Sound editing is excellent and the score (written by John Debney and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra) is suitably rousing. Cutthroat Island is a mindless diversion. If, for whatever reason, you decide to go, maintain low expectations. Hoping for more than a bunch of loud bangs and ridiculous dialogue will rob Cutthroat Island of its amusement value.

Cutthroat Island (United States, 1995)

Director: Renny Harlin
Cast: Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, Frank Langella, Maury Chaykin, Patrick Malahide
Screenplay: Robert King and Marc Norman
Cinematography: Peter Levy
Music: John Debney
U.S. Distributor: United Artists
Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 1995-12-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1