Made in 1995 with a budget of $98,000,000 and a handful of big name stars, "Cutthroat Island" is one of the biggest flops in movie history and, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the biggest financial loss to date (this statistic is out of date by now).
The film was hampered by an irresponsible producer and director, constant cast changes, and accidents on set which resulted in rebuilding many of the sets, thus costing more money. It only grossed a tenth of its production costs in theaters and has been criticized over the last fifteen years for bad acting, bad script, etc... However the movie has aged well with time. Audiences in the mid-nineties may not have favored the over-the-top action extravaganza with it's violent and gung-ho heroine, but modern geeks, nerds, and feminists alike can find a lot to love in this 2 hour pirate epic.
The ever beautiful Geena Davis stars as the pirate captain Morgan Adams, bringing a to the screen a much tougher persona than fans of "Beetlejuice" will expect of her. Her portrayal of a rough-tough fighting woman is near-perfect. She manages to pull off her numerous actions scenes with realistic vigor and violence, never appearing too masculine or too graceful. It is easy to believe that she is a real pirate, not just an actress frolicking around with a cutlass. And while there are some moments when her acting is not at it's peak, I found myself giving her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, in a real life situation, that's how a female pirate would have acted.
My favorite part of her performance is the fact that she never once tries to be feminine or elegant. She drinks to drown her pain, flirts shamelessly, sleeps with any handsome man who catches her fancy, slits throats without blinking an eye, and cares more about money than nearly anything else. Throughout the film, she never wears too much makeup or appears too clean. The injuries she sustains in the fight scenes stay with her throughout the film instead of disappearing by the next scene. (Ever noticed how Elizabeth Swan's skin is impeccably clean throughout "Pirates of the Caribbean?" Yeah, that's not realistic.) Her appearance is always real, as if there isn't a camera and makeup crew standing right next to her. I respect that. She is dirty and bloody and bedraggled. And bad-ass. Perhaps one of the reasons audiences didn't like the film in the 90's was because it was just too feminist for its time.
As her counterpart, the handsome thief William Shaw, Matthew Modine is not quite so fabulous. Modine made an adorable FBI agent in "Married to the Mob," but he simply wasn't cut out to be a pirate. It is clear that he was cast because of his uncanny resemblance to Errol Flynn, perhaps the greatest swashbuckling actor of all time, his fencing ability, and because he was one of Hollywood's few leading men tall enough to act with Geena Davis (who stands at over 6 feet), but he lacks Flynn's effortless charm and charismatic on-screen presence. Modine is simply not tough enough to hold his ground with Davis. She rules the screen with a larger-than-life persona while Modine struggles to keep up with her. It may be cute to see a reversal of the rough pirate and sheltered lady roles we saw in "Pirates of the Caribbean," but I wish the casting agents had been able to find a leading man who would live up the high standards Davis sets. Seven of Hollywood's most famous leading men turned down the role of Shaw before it was given to Modine, so perhaps we can't blame him for his ineptitude. He was eighth choice, and he is better than some of the alternatives (like Keanu Reeves who, thank God, turned down the role).
Well, thank goodness for Frank Langella then. As Morgan's murderous uncle, Dawg Adams, Langella fairly sparkles with ruthless panache. He plays the stereotypical greedy pirate who is willing to do away with even his family to reach the treasure, and though you know that he has to die at the end (because evil always loses), he is still terrifying. Langella excels at this type of role. His understated, sinisterly innocent smile and piercing eyes captivated us in "Dracula" over 30 years ago, and his charisma is still going strong in "Cutthroat Island." Though he was 57 years old when the film was made, his athleticism (and, dare I say it, handsome physique) are impressive to say the least. And this may just be my passionate and undying love for Frank Langella speaking, but his muscles are bigger than Modine's. Yes, everyone loves a bad boy.
The supporting cast is nothing to scoff at either. Though the secondary characters are stuck saying some very cliched lines (at times the dialogue seems jumbled together from other swashbuckling movies), the character actors do well in their roles. It is a joy to see a teen-aged Christopher Masterson as Morgan's cabin boy, Bowen, and Patrick Malahide and Angus Wright make appropriately fearsome and comic British naval officers. Perhaps the best supporting actor was Shayna the monkey as Morgan's loyal and mischievous pet King Charles.
If you are a fan of enormous sets and breathtaking scenery (the movie was filmed in Malta), then "Cutthroat" is well worth the watch. And if you are a fan of Davis's romantic comedies, this is a must-see. Basically if you like pirates, adventure, fighting, historical-realism, or any of the main actors, "Cutthroat Island" will charm you. Just turn a deaf ear to the moments of bad script and a blind eye to the moments of bad acting. The other 90% of the film is pure, good old-fashioned, swashbuckling fun with a kick-ass dose of feminism. If you've got 2 hours to spare this weekend, make yourself a bowl of popcorn, pop open a few beers, and enjoy the ride.
P.S. If you are a gamer, you might recognize that Cutthroat Isle on Pirates of the Caribbean Online is named after this movie, though you won't find Morgan Adams there.
The Lonely Alchemist