Cutthroat Island, released in 1995, was a catastrophic box office disaster that finally bankrupted the already-struggling independent studio Carolco, derailed the career of its star Geena Davis and sent its director Renny Harlin (Davis’ husband at the time) into a spiral of underachieving long-forgotten B-movies. The film’s brave attempt to resurrect the once-popular ‘pirate movie’ genre sank without trace and turned the genre into a no-go area until Disney scored a surprise hit with the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie eight years later. Pirates is, in many ways, everything Cutthroat Island wanted to be, but it’s clear that Cutthroat was doomed from the outset, scuppered by script rewrites, casting problems and continual disruptions on set caused by Harlin’s dissatisfaction with the sets and the general production design. The dust has long since settled, although the wounds surely run deep. But nearly three decades on, the film arrives on 4K, and if nothing else, it deserves to be reassessed now that there’s some distance between the film itself and the muddled circumstances of its production and release.
In the best traditions of pirate fiction, Cutthroat Island is the story of a quest for hidden treasure. Morgan Adams (Davis) is determined to collect the three pieces of a map leading to a huge stash of treasure on the remote Cutthroat Island. One piece is on her father’s scalp, her brother Mordechai has a second, and the third is in the hands of ruthless rival pirate Dawg Brown (Frank Langella). Teaming up with the roguish William Shaw (Matthew Modine), Morgan and her crew are thrown into conflict with Dawg in a struggle to secure the third piece of the map and claim the treasure. Much swashbuckling and derring-do ensues…
Cutthroat Island isn’t actually a bad film, but it wears its troubled production on its sleeve. The film’s tone is woefully uneven; the first half is characterised by sub-Carry On humour and innuendo, but the second half, more action-fixated, is far more satisfying, delivering genuine spectacle in a number of all-at-sea action set pieces that are stunningly, if hectically, realised. Here, the film manages to overcome its script and plot problems and becomes, in the third act at least, the sort of gung-ho nautical action/adventure film it was always intended to be.
On-screen, Geena Davis never looks particularly comfortable in the role of a sword-wielding action hero despite her desire to take her career in a different direction, but at least there’s some chemistry between her and Modine, drafted in to replace Michael Douglas, who jumped ship well before the film went into production, and Frank Langella is pleasingly ripe as the ruthless Dawg. The cinematography is impressively expansive, and the sparkling and crisp 4K transfer really plays to the film’s visual strengths. John Debney’s score is suitably bombastic, but it becomes a bit overbearing in places to the point it almost becomes a parody in itself, and with a runtime of just over two hours, the film’s eagerness to please and impress becomes a little tiring.
The new 4K release doesn’t gloss over the film’s legendary reputation, and a slew of new documentary features (especially The Adventure of a Lifetime) is refreshingly candid about the film’s endless travails and, ultimately, the fact that it was doomed to fail before even a frame of footage had been shot. The truth is that Cutthroat Island was the wrong film at the wrong time, a film made for all the right reasons but without the full support of its struggling studio and with too much resting on its success. Now, it presents not only as an interesting curio but also as a fitfully enjoyable, if frustratingly uneven and deeply flawed, attempt to create an unpretentious, thrills-and-spill adventure in the classic tradition.
CUTTHROAT ISLAND is available now on 4K SteelBook, 4K, and Blu-ray.