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Cutthroat Island

***
1995

‘…as a Saturday night frolic in ye olden style, Cutthroat Island is worth a visit…’

Apparently the record books suggest that, adjusted for inflation, Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island is the biggest box office flop of all time; that’s a shame because it’s really not that bad, and much worse films have gone on to make a packet. Making action movies with women at the centre has always been a perilous business, and perhaps spending $100 million on a Geena Davis pirate movie wasn’t the most savvy use of cash; a fresh appraisal in 2022 reveals an overblown but reasonably tight aspiring blockbuster with plenty of bang for your buck.

In a story that follows the formula of the hugely popular Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Morgan Adams (Davis) scalps her father on his deathbed to gain the fragment of a map that’s tattooed on his noggin. There’s two other parts to locate, and Dawg Brown (Frank Langella) is her competition to put the pieces together and find the treasure. But to do this, Adams has to form an uneasy alliance with William Shaw (Matthew Modine), a swashbuckling scallywag who she inevitably develops feelings for; even a pirate’s heart isn’t completely black.

Shot at obvious expense in Malta and Thailand, and with massive construction work rather than CGI to bring the ancient world to life, Cutthroat Island at least has a physicality about it that makes for some good action; the opening chase scene has some visual gags and fiery explosions to ogle. Davis and Modine don’t strike many sparks, perhaps because she was married to Harlin at the time, but they both seem reasonably spirited, and Langella is always a good choice for a baddie. The special effects are variable, and Harlin’s quality control lets him down, but there’s no lack of effort taken to realise a cut-throat world of derring do.

So why didn’t Cutthroat Island make land? It seems less that audiences didn’t like it as they didn’t see it at all; it’s not even gained the cult status that another underrated big-budget Davis movie, The Long Kiss Goodnight, has enjoyed. But as a Saturday night frolic in ye olden style, Cutthroat Island is worth a visit; the big gamble seems to have been to expect audiences to enjoy a gutsy female protagonist ,and that whimsical notion actually looked better now that back in the mid-90’s, when it seemed, and proved to be, sheer folly.

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  1. Flopped because it wasn’t Michael Douglas in the lead. Modine is no Douglas and Douglas and Davis would have made good sparring partners. You had a giant movie without big stars. Shame it flopped because I quite liked it on the big screen.

    • You may well be right: Douglas was on a roll at this point, and maybe a stronger lead would have helped. This does demonstrate that female leads in action movies are still a minority pursuit.

  2. Absolutely loved Geena as action lady, both in this which IMHO is equal to any of the Jack Sparrow nonsenses and The Long Kiss Goodnight which, you may remember I reviewed as brilliant back in Jan 21. I wonder what happened to Modine, he seemed to be THE man for a while and then disappeared.

    • More so than most Marvel films. While hardly perfect, this is a solid blockbuster with a strong female lead, so deserved exhuming for that alone…

    • I think the “flop” of it comes from film goer resentment. Geena was really being pushed. She was everywhere in the mags. And that was pre-social media. Imagine Geena existing in a Kardashian-social media world.

      I think media saturation kills careers. Melissa McCarthy could be on the list. Goers backlash to the overkill. Actresses like Brooke Shields think the perpetual swim suit picks and the “Amazing at 50” taglines will lead to goer endearment. It doesn’t: you end up disliking the person.

      I also see Alex’s “Pygmalionis” observation as a contributing factor. It sort of goes back to what you, Melanie, observed with Lauren Becall and Howard Hawks. Harlin “molding” Geena . . . it just has the “creeps” on it. Goers just ended up hating Geena Davis.

      • I agree that something was working against Davis during this period. There’s stars and directors where every movie is an event, but others seem wildly over-exposed. Davis is a good performer, but as you say, maybe her ‘every mag possible’ status worked against her….

  3. Thank you for reminding me of this film! I’d completely forgotten about it. I saw it only once on the BIG SCREEN (which is always how these types of movies should be seen) and LOVED IT! Some quick math indicates that I was 14 at the time, so perhaps my palette was not yet sophisticated.

    But for $4 on Amazon, I’ve got to give this one another look through adult eyes…….

    • So we are part of a small band of Cutthroat Island revisionists who reject conventional thinking on this film. The only thing that’s really wrong with this film, in they eyes of many, is that a woman does successfully all the things that used to be the preserve of men. This might have been a flop, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad; they had a near miss in terms of predicting a popular formula.

  4. I never would have thought Modine would have been cast in this type of role.
    I also have never heard of this. Not that big a surprise, but usually I’ve kind of, sorta, maybe heard of most of the stuff you review. This though, nothing.

    It’s on prime, but not for free, so I’ll be passing until it is free. I do like a rollicking pirate movie.

    • I have watched this film and find it suitable for Bookstodges. Where do you know Modine from?

      • Excellent. Another Bookstodge Appropriate Film. Pretty soon I’ll start my own film company and write schlocky christian message films and I’ll release barely veiled ripoffs of all Bookstodge Appropriate Films.

        Let me think.
        The Dark Knight Rises
        Transporter 2
        What the Deaf Man Heard
        and then some movie where he’s a conman who robs houses by changing shipping companies. He gets killed but his younger brother/nephew gets all the stuff and goes to mexico with some cop girl, or something.

      • For me: the WW II drama Memphis Belle and the wrestling drama, Vision Quest. That’s when he was a lead, instead of support player in the films Bookstooge mentions.

        That, of course, is back in the Anthony Edwards’ days when Hollywood, as with Modine, were out to create another Tom Cruise.

        • Modine has weathered the course nicely, Anthony Edwards still looking Ok in Inventing Anna…but Tom, I guess has a picture in his attic, there’s no explaining his appearance…

  5. Something almost Pygmalionis about Harlin wanting to make his wife over into an action star. Besson and Anderson had better luck with Jovovich.

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