What seemed like a dubious proposition on paper plays even more dubiously onscreen, as “Cutthroat Island” strenuously but vainly attempts to revive the thrills of old-fashioned pirate pictures. Giving most of the swashbuckling opportunities to star Geena Davis, pic does little with its reversal of gender expectations and features a seriously mismatched romantic duo in Davis and Matthew Modine. Destined to be known as the film that sent Carolco to the bottom once and for all, this megabudget behemoth will snap director Renny Harlin’s commercial winning streak. After this and “Waterworld” in one year, Hollywood might well heed the admonition of one of the rare oceangoing successes and stay out of the water.
Designed as a lusty tale of family treachery, piratical derring-do and fierce competition for hidden treasure, handsomely mounted production is crammed with massive action, spectacular stunts and continual face-offs between the good/bad heroes and their downright villainous foes.
Younger teen audiences might be carried away by the escapades up to a point, but there is little flair or grace on display, as the sheer effort of capturing the tumultuous doings on camera is all too apparent. No one in the film seems to be having much fun, and the effect is contagious.
Unable to rescue her pirate father from the murderous hand of his blackhearted pirate brother Dawg Brown (Frank Langella), the statuesque Morgan Adams (Davis) ends up with a piece of scalp on which one-third of a map is drawn indicating the location of Cutthroat Island and its purported fortune.
Rousing Dad’s crew to the cause, Morgan sallies out to Port Royal, Jamaica, where she buys prisoner William Shaw (Modine) at a slave auction for his knowledge of Latin, in which the map is written. After a breathless escape that entails the destruction of half the city and a brawl that enables William to make off with the second piece of the puzzle, the eager opportunists set sail for the titular piece of rock, upon which they are dashed by a quite impressively staged storm at sea. Having launched a cutesy love/hate relationship, Morgan and William find the hidden gold but are quickly apprehended by the dastardly Dawg. While Morgan manages to elude him, Dawg impounds the treasure and eventually captures William.
But Morgan perseveres, regaining control of her ship and engaging her treacherous uncle in a confrontation that involves a rip-roaring shootout between ships, a battle royal on board, a duel between Morgan and Dawg that takes them from the deck up through the rigging and into the hold, and a double climax that sees the loser literally blown away in unique fashion and one ship blasted out of existence in the blink of an eye.
All through the decisive battle, Modine’s William is kept chained below deck, out of the action, much like women might have been in pirate pictures some 60 years ago. Feminist balance-seekers might be amused, but putting the male lead on the sidelines during the film’s final reels makes the character even more useless than he had been up to then.
At best, he is a lightweight scoundrel, a scalawag posing as a gentleman physician who would seem no threat to any of the more formidable characters on board, including Morgan. More at home in offbeat contemporary roles, Modine is swimming upstream here.
Towering over many of the men and strapping in her feminized pirate gear, Davis nonetheless seems similarly out of her element, with virtually all of her quirky appeal neutralized by the single-mindedly determined, straight-ahead demands of her action-hero role.
In her best modern parts, she has most often been the singularly attractive odd duck. But while the idea of playing a female pirate might have been enticing , the actual contours of the part make Davis seem more conventional than she normally does, a matter not helped in the least by the parade of uniformly witless, sub-Bond one-liners she is required to deliver to cap off rip-roaring highlights.
In a rare highly physical role, Langella carves out a suitably hissable villain.
Action sequences in general, while vividly staged, have a repetitiveness about them, and lack of proper dramatic ebb and flow is exacerbated by John Debney’s self-consciously rousing score, which amounts to a compendium of rehashed action-adventure motifs. Violence is of the clean variety, with many people bloodlessly killed, as in the Hollywood of yore, and pic’s outstanding feature is unquestionably the stunt work coordinated by Vic Armstrong; scarcely do five minutes go by without some hair-raising bit of business performed with obvious potential peril to life and limb.
Working with action specialist cinematographer Peter Levy, Harlin moves his camera around with skill, and pic is a feast for the eyes due to Norman Garwood’s lavish production design, Enrico Sabbatini’s equally florid costumes and the striking locations in Malta (doubling for 1600s Jamaica) and Thailand, where the jutting clusters of tiny islands around Phuket provide the imposing setting for Cutthroat Island itself.
Latter section was shot with Panavision equipment, while the Malta sequences used Technovision, resulting in the apparent first shared credit for anamorphic processes on a Hollywood picture.