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.