Digital Polyphony

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 Not That Bad:

Cutthroat Island


The Movie:

In this throwback, swashbuckling adventure, Captain Morgan Adams (Geena Davis) is in a race to find Cutthroat Island before her villainous uncle, Dawg Brown (Frank Langella). With her small rag-tag crew and inherited ship from her father, who conveniently dies in the first three minutes of the movie, they hunt down pieces of a map with rogue thief William Shaw (Matthew Modine) to find the treasure of Cutthroat Island because…well…that’s just what pirates do. It’s treasure, damnit. No scurvy dog (Dawg) in secret alliance with some politician guy who’s name I can’t remember and don’t care enough to look up, is going to get to it before them! There’s also this bit with a corrupt Governor and some writer. I don’t know. It’s just padding. But adventure is there if you can get past all that bullshit!

Cutthroat Island came out at a time when the “pirate movie” genre was dead and buried, supplanted long ago with science fiction and space adventures that scratched the same itch but offered more visually. You’d get, maybe, a movie about pirates every few years after the 1970s, but none ever found success and wouldn’t until, arguably, Pirates of the Caribbean became franchised in 2004.

Plagued with countless production problems, going all the way back to the script stage that has six credited writers on its docket, through problems in casting and budget issues not to mention a lame-duck production company, Cutthroat Island was unleashed upon the masses in the bitter winter of 1995 and was an absolute flop, barely raking in a forth of its budget cost. Director Renny Harlin, fresh off the success of Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, approached the film with one goal in mind: get his then0wife, Geena Davis, famous as an action star (which he would arguably finally do in the follow-up movie, The Long Kiss Goodnight).

Over the years, its legacy as one of the worst movies ever made grew, yet I could never really get answers as to why other than “it flopped” and maybe pointing out some acting and stuff. Well that’s not really answering, so now, over 20 years later, let’s take a look and cut through all that to find out if it’s really that bad.


The Common Complaints:

What are the common things people bring up when they sit around and talk about the movie? From my experience, these are:


Simply put, a whole lot of current-sounding dialogue and sexual innuendos delivered by actors who don’t bother to sound of the period and feels as though nobody gave a shit (more on that later) then... yes…this is pretty bad. It really does take you out of the movie was you hear Modine not bothering to curtail his southern California accent or even Davis, the lead here, feeling as though she can’t be bothered.

Think about it, one of the reasons people love pirates is that they love the pirate accent and dialect and the goofy phrases they say. Nobody in the main cast sounds like they’re actually pirates and, worst of all, they don’t sound like they want to be pirates. Modine gets a pass, he’s not a pirate, but Davis? I’m not saying she needs to say “Avast ye landlubbers” or call someone a “Shiver me timbers” but maybe call someone a “scurvy dog” and tell them to batten down some hatches here and there.

Cutthroat Island really takes the fun notion of being a pirate and is completely dismissive of it. If you’re going to own being a throwback-type of movie, then go all-in. The look and costumes and the sets and everything else feels wasted when nobody other than the supporting casts, some of which steal the show in terms of being memorable, take the time to feel a part of the world that's being created.


I half-expected Modine to say "dude" on more than one occasion.


The out of placeless goes one strange step further beyond dialogue and accents though. I can see that there's supposed to be sexual tension here, plenty of movies like this do that, but none of it feels natural. It really forces innuendos and dialogue that just never land, as though someone came in late to "punch up" the sexual tension and failing miserably. There's this one scene mid-way through where Davis's character, Morgan, is being treated by Modine's Shaw and it played out like a bad soap opera. More importantly, I kept asking myself "what does this scene serve to the story?"

That's something a lot of writers should ask themselves, and the writers (probably one of the uncredited ones) seem to just plug in things to punch that stuff up but it sticks out like a sore thumb. Plus, you have the following which doesn't really help in that on-sreen chemistry.

Nobody Seems Interested in Being Here

If there's one thing I hear most often about Cutthroat Island, it's how nobody really feels up to the task of being a pirate or being invested in the movie. To this, I both agree and disagree. I think our two main leads are up to task, they just don't bother with feeling a part of the world (see above) with accents and dialogue and the script does them no favors. They are up to the task in all the adventure and their character traits, but there's not much of a script for them to exchange witty banter or be comedic though it desperately tries to.

Yet, I would say, for the most part, nobody is invested here outside of some memorable supporting characters. Bad dialogue probably has a lot to do with that, but let’s face it: none of these characters are particularly memorable. They’re fine on paper, I think - mostly broad-stroke caricatures of pirate movie characters we’ve seen plenty of times - but there seems to be a disinterest in anything and everything going on.


Know who does seem to feel more interested? The supporting casts, which seem more invested in their characters and do a ton with very little, which makes them more memorable characters than even the leads.

Now personally I think Genna Davis does a great job. Well, mostly, I mean, I just told you about not bothering with an accent, but she still does plenty of fighting and running around and getting shot out and tries to make the humor work with the bad lines she has. Maybe that’s why she looks so blasé in the scenes where talking is needed - scenes that were probably punched up by one of those writers yet it feels totally inorganic. Or Frank Langela, who really has nothing to work with, just lumbering along with a raspy voice, trying to sound like a pirate but really only meeting it half-way.

But let me tell you why all the passiveness of everyone ends up hurting the movie: when the big reveals come, and the island is found, then the treasure is found, then even the twist revealed…you really feel nothing. It sucks that this happens, but there’s no excitement in finding loads of treasure in a pirate movie. There’s no “you bastard!” moment when the villains reveal their full plan. There’s no “atta girl!” when Davis and Modine pretty much say they’re going to in the captain’s quarters and totally get it on. There's a ton going on but no impact, which makes...


Cutthroat Island Ends Up Forgettable

That’s the other thing I hear most about Cutthroat Island: it’s so damn forgettable and a lot of it because of that section above. It’s exciting and adventurous, but it’s got nothing to really get you invested. And you know what? I have to agree. Even now, writing this, I have a hard time writing a lot about the movie and I just watched it for a second time within a week only a day ago. Why is that? I mean, it has things I like, and I’ll get to that at the end, but why does this movie make me feel like I don’t care?

Because nobody else really cared. You can argue it was just a vanity project, and it was a vanity project make no mistake, but there’s been plenty of vanity projects I’ve liked. Maybe it’s the fact it has one vision and goal, to sell Davis as an action star, but I’d argue it actually achieves that. I’d even argue that even though the actors seem disinterested, they still do their jobs. I mean, the characters are there. Maybe it’s the script that just didn’t bother and they didn’t have anything to really invest emotion into because it was so centered on selling Davis and just being spectacle.

Maybe…. Maybe. Like I said, I don’t know, but it’s a complaint I totally agree with that is brought up often. IT’s an intagnible complaint that you can’t quite put your finger on but you know it when you see it or when you “feel” it.



Seen here: a lot of disinterested actors and some sub-plot that I didn't care about because I don't think anyone else cared about. Something about a soldier having second thoughts and wanting to be a Pirate...I don't know... also a bit about a mutiny...a lot happens yet none of it is memorable.


I end on this one one thing, though, because it kind of goes deeper into film criticsm than my little brain can fathom. Is something being "memorable" equal to something being "good?" Does a film have to be something you retain and take with you to be anything of quality? I don't think it does. I mean, I have no doubt The King's Speech is a good film, winning Best Picture and all and I even saw it twice. Yet I really can't remember a ton from it, actually. In contrast, Commando is one dumb, stupid movie...but I can quote nearly every scene.

So just because Cutthroat Island is forgettable doesn't make it bad. It's not dull, there's too many explosions and swordfights for that, but it doesn't have those actors invested to make it memorable. THIS should be a movie you quote, like Commando. THIS should be a movie where you go "YES! THEY DID IT!" but it doesn't. 

My Complaints:

It's one thing to just be snarky and hate on the movie, but let's dig a little deeper and take notice of some of the more egregious faults.


Who Is This Movie For?

I still can’t quite put my finger on this movie and what it’s aiming for. It’s too sexual and sometimes bloody to be for kids yet too gleefully childlike and silly to be for adults. It doesn’t quite strike a balance and you end up spending more time trying to figure it out than really paying attention (see above...have of that convoluted mess of a story I can't remember at all).

What Cutthroat Island strives to be is a throwback movie, but it has such a messy plot and story with way too much going on, it doesn't feel throwback at all. It's trying to do too much but never quite works. So you have an action movie with too much plot which would turn the typical PG-13 crowd away, you have way too much violence of younger crowd and it's too dumb and silly to really get the adults in the audience to care.

What Cutthroad Island lacks is one clear vision. Again, I think that goes back to the script stage of many writers on it and a director too focused on selling Davis in her role rather than trying to tell a story. 


I Hate That One Scene...And that One...And That One

And by “one” I mean a few. There’s some individual scenes that just make you roll your eyes because they’re so damn dumb and pointless and, worst of all, fall flat in what they’re going for, usually comedic banter and sexual tension of some sort. One in particular, a scene involving Modine in quicksand and an argument with Davis about giving her the map first then pulling him out or vice-versa. It doesn’t make sense. Even if they pulled him out, where is he going to go? It’s not like Davis is by herself, there’s a dozen men around her. It’s meant to be funny, but it’s just dumb banter and doesn’t work or serve any purpose other than padding the film.

Another is again with Modine and Davis earlier in the film as they escape from a bunch of soldiers shortly after Modine is freed from captivity. They’re sitting in a carriage and there’s some innuendo about a penis and testicles and a knife where the reflection on its blade reveals a map secret and again it doesn’t quite land. Maybe it needed a “getting to know who you are” type of thing, which is never quite established, and it just comes across as expository rather than witty or clever. Another scene takes place in the Captain’s Quarters with Modine playing surgeon (which I mentioned earlier and how it doesn't push the story forward at all), and another in a cave as Modine and Davis explore yet it’s so damn dull that when someone spouts a line it again comes across as completely flat (again, mentioned because nobody feels invested). I mean, that could have been a fun scene, get to know these characters leading up to them coming together, but it’s damn bland.

Seeing a pattern yet?

A final one is with the two hanging on a rope and then working together. Actually, they themselves are just fine here, but it’s the context of the scene. Again, like the quicksand scene, it doesn’t make sense and you end up distracted by the fact it doesn’t make sense (our bad guy has them on a rope, can just kill them, but decides to pull them up because reasons) than you do realizing they’re connecting as characters.

I can’t say for certain if it’s Modine and Davis themselves and whether or not it’s their chemistry. It might be that, but really I think it’s just an action director not quite knowing how to handle comedic timing more than anything. Modine and Davis are fine on screen together, but when they’re trying to have witty banter it never really lands and you never once laugh at whatever they're trying to sell you. It feels superfluous as a result.

Now these things are just nit-picky. I’ll admit that. But at the same time I have to say they kind of represent something that’s inherently wrong with the film: it plays for comedy but the comedy doesn’t quite land. In fact, I don’t think it ever does. It feels like it wants to be fun and light, especially put up against the rather “fun” sounding score and pace of it all, but you aren’t laughing once. So we end up with…

Character Relationships Don’t Feel Earned

The casting is fine, for what it is. The characters themselves are fine, for what they are. Yet…there’s something missing: these people don’t feel as though they’re really with each other. In a movie like this you need a build and escalation of everyone coming together but Cutthroat Island doesn't achieve that.

Essentially there’s so much exposition and so many superfluous moments that nothing really connects in terms of character relationships and chemistry. So when, at the end, we’re meant to feel that some bond was formed as our heroes overcome the big bad guy, it just has a sensation of it doing that because that’s what this particular structured story needs to end on, not as though it actually is organic to where these characters are with each other. We really know as much about them at the end as we do at the beginning.

Modine's Character is Ultimately Pointless

While I don’t have any problem with Modine’s performance, outside of the accent, or even the character itself from a personality standpoint, you could easily just take him out or shove him further back and the story probably wouldn’t lose much. William Shaw seems to just be there to serve the plot and not much else. He's a supporting element, pops up here and there to push the plot a bit further, but that's it. Unlike a certain Jack Sparrow, for example, which is used in similar fashion in the first Pirates movie, the character isn't all that compelling or interesting. He's kind of a Princess Bride Wesley knock-off without the wittyness.

That's not Modine's fault, necessarily. He looks the part and puts his best foot forward in being charming and a bit aloof and is likable enough. It's really a script that felt like it had a small role suddenly bumped up to the co-lead. He doesn't really go anywhere nor does he add anything or even take away anything. He's just kinda "there," for lack of a better phrase to describe a character that is simultaneously useful as a plot driver yet pointless as a character in and of himself that we know a lot about and can get behind - a small role written bigger than it should have been. He doesn't really learn a whole lot. He's still the same guy at the end, only now he and Davis can go off and make hot pirate sex or something.

I suppose it's like this: put him up against the rest of the smaller roles, and he achieves about the same amount of development and memorable moments and contributes to about the same amount of story and plot, he's just given more screentime. He really is there just to hang around and be a plot device. His dialogue, as we noted, isn't nearly as funny as it could be and the relationship with he and Davis falls flat in ever scene that have together (again, likely because of a director who didn't quite know how to handle comedy and witty banter ala old-school swashbukling cinema).

The Awesome Stuff

It's not all bad, you's some things that people should consider or even re-consider.


It Looks Damn Good and Does Awesome Pirate Stuff

Keep in mind that in 1995, there was only so much computers could do, so as  result this movie (along with others from the time like a Waterworld or something) went far more practical. You couldn’t necessarily CG a ship and make it look convincing like you could do ten years later, you pretty  much had to build the thing and that’s exactly what they did or, at least, get some old ships, a lot of explosives and a stunt crew that were totally game to do stunts.

The movie still has some of those weird 90s qualities, such as random slow motion and mediocre blue screen, but still it has some fantastic sets, costumes, lighting, exotic locations and choreography to go along with it and all framed and shot wonderfully not to mention some of the best explosions of a full-size ship you could ever ask for.

Renny Harlin may have not bothered telling a memorable (and sometimes coherent) story, but his action set pieces in Cutthroat Island still hold up and look fantastic.


Or one of the most impressive stunts on film where a stuntperson blindly tumbles out of a window and lands in the passenger seat of a speeding coach.


Does it no justice here...


Really, when it comes right down to it, from sheer action and adventure…this movie absolutely gets the job done with a lot of practical effects and amazing stuntwork. It’s directed well in that regard and even the film's biggest detractors can't deny that. Well, for nearly 100 million 1995 dollars it better, right? It’s entertaining because it looks nice and plays up the spectacle, action and stuntwork. I have no complaints on that regard and the action itself is probably the saving grace of the movie, all speerheaded by...

Our Lead is a Bad-Ass Woman

Want to talk about risks? Let’s talk about risks. Geena Davis as Morgan Adams is damn awesome in the movie (a movie that was risky to take on in the first place for studio). I’ll absolutely admit that the fact she doesn’t bother with an accent sucks, as mentioned, but between all the stunts and the swords and the guns and the outsmarting everyone left and right…Morgan Adams is pretty damn badass. This movie came out at a time when there really weren’t any bad ass female action heroes running around.  I mean, before this movie you had Sarah Conner and Ripley…two franchises that were pretty done themselves by 1995…and that’s about it. Maybe I’ll give you Nikita but most people didn’t know about her.

Action leads were totally dominated by men..specifically badass action leads were dominated by men. Here we have a strong heroine who doesn’t sacrifice her femininity (pretending to be a man or acting like one) to achieve a convincing character that you feel can totally handle anyone in the room if it came to it. Who can be a leader and have people follow her. Who can be a romanticized love interest without cooing over someone.

Plus there’s this totally awesome part where she sneaks up behind a guy, breaks his neck with one motion, takes out his sword as he falls and throws it across the room right into another dude’s chest. I mean…come on. That’s just awesome. Captain Blood would be proud. She kills a lot of people. I mean…a whole lotta people and doesn't flinch. I love that they just go for it.

Oh, and there’s no “she was raised as a boy” story or some BS stuff to explain it all. She just is, and that’s why it works so well.

The Monkey is Named “King Charles”

Nothing else to note here, I just find that hilarious and let’s face it…the movie needs some comedy that actually works.

A Very Satisfying Third Act

You make a pirate movie, you better have some ships going at each other with pirates swinging and shooting and stabbing…and Cutthroat Island has that in spades come its final big action set piece.  Actually, more of a series of set pieces because it's a good 20 minutes of unabashed pirate-action gleefulness. It took seemingly forever to get to it, but the final action sequences are so damn good. You have a slight game of chess, you have ship battles and lots of cannons, you have guns, you have villains getting their comeuppance, you have sword fights,  hell you have a swordfight amongst the masts of a ship in the middle of the ocean that’s slowly sinking, you have a fantastic final kill for our villain and every little character that you’ve met gets a moment to shine.

I love this final sequence of events. It’s a great example of the movie as a whole with action being creative, of variety and well done and feels uninterested in everything else. It’s well paced and well edited, not to mention it has that variety with so many things happening at once but still keeping it all clear and understandable. The only part that doesn’t work is that Modine is relegated to “ticking bomb” as he’s near drowning on a sinking ship and our heroine has to figure out how to save him in time, but other than that it’s damn good. I just wish it had a better button on it when all was said and done. Instead we get some crappy lines and a helicopter shot of the ship as the credits roll. Not quite satisfying.




So…Is It Really That Bad?

Not at all. This is one of those situations where the movie bombed so incredibly hard when it came out that it took its credibility with it. People just assumed it was this awful, horrible thing when, really, I’d argue it's damn entertaining despite some glaring flaws. Seriously, go watch this then go watch the massive blockbuster that is The Curse of the Black Pearl. The tone. The style. The characters archetypes. It shares a ton with that movie. Hell, one of the biggest criticisms of this film when it came out was that it played up the comedy too much (comedy that, to me, doesn’t really hold up but that’s besides the point) and along comes more capable actors and a director that could do comedy a decade later and is able to make a giant franchise starring Johnny Depp.

It’s a film that has problems but it’s also a film that has a strange endearing quality to it. It’s a lean, fast-paced and overall well-directed flick that just doesn’t have a very creative story going with it, some characters that don’t really feel “earned” in terms of their relationships and endgames and has a few scenes that just make your eyes roll. Then again, not many pirate movies have great stories to begin with - they’ve always gotten by on just being action and adventure with little put into an actual plot. That’s kind of what Cutthroat Island ended up as: a throwback movie that tried to big-budget a throwback movie and it comes across as a little disingenuous as a result unlike, say, a Raiders of the Lost Ark or even a Flash Gordon, two other throwback movies, that worked with a restrained budget and came out golden.

Even though that “earned” element isn’t there in terms of characters bonding and feeling as though they’ve progressed, the characters themselves are still broad enough and visualized well enough to get you to track them and even route for them. Everyone is pretty likable for the most part even if there’s disinterest here and there on part of the actors. The action is also handled well with some fantastic stunts and practical effects that really show it cost a pretty penny because it looks good while doing it. The finale, especially, is just one big love letter to pirate movies - having all the silliness and cliches the genre brings with it and it does so for a good 20 minutes or so.

The problem was, I think, is that people just didn’t want pirate movies anymore. They hadn’t wanted them for 30 years and by 1995 they still didn’t want them. It was a risk and like any risk, it had a chance of failing and boy did it ever fail, but not necessarily because it’s a bad movie. It’s a dumb movie, yes. It has problems but it’s also immensely entertaining.





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