Cutthroat Island

(1995) ** 1/2 Pg-13
125 min. MGM Distribution Company. Director: Renny Harlin. Cast: Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, Frank Langella, Maury Chaykin, Patrick Malahide.


Hey, are you looking for an exciting movie about pirates of the, well, um, Caribbean? Before Johnny Depp and CGI squid-men, there were actual pirate movies. Once a staple of Hollywood action (for stars like Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster), pirate movies crashed and burned with Renny Harlin's 1995 fiasco Cutthroat Island. Listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest box office flop of all time, Cutthroat Island cost around $115 million and its domestic gross was around $10 million. But who's counting? Harlin's action extravaganza isn't art, but for its flaws, it's still a pretty decent pure pirate movie.

In 1668 Jamaica, legendary pirate Black Harry (Harris Yulin) nearly takes his secret to the grave when he's killed by his dastardly brother Dawg (Frank Langella). But on his earthen deathbed, Harry entrusts his daughter Morgan Adams (Geena Davis) with the partial treasure map Dawg so badly coveted. Dawg holds another portion of the treasure map, and the race is on to recover the third part. In order to decipher the Latin on the map, Morgan buys a knowledgable slave at auction, one William Shaw (Matthew Modine). A rogue and peasant slave is he, having been thrown into shackles after stealing jewelry from high-class women at an upper-crust soirée. The purchase turns into an escape, one of the film's most spectacular action setpieces. The sequence includes dizzying ascents and drops, huge explosions, and a seamless shot in which Davis appears to tumble from a window into a carriage below that's travelling at breakneck speed. Demonstrating a gift for understatement, Shaw tells Adams, "You're more active than other women I've known."

From there, Cutthroat Island takes to the high seas, on Morgan's Morning Star (whose crew includes a pre-Malcolm in the Middle Chris Masterson) and Dawg's the Reaper, two full-scale riggers built for the production. As everyone knows, treachery reigns among pirates, and new captain Morgan labors to earn and keep the loyalty of her crew. There's also the very real question of whether Shaw can be trusted, a matter complicated by the burgeoning mutual attraction between the schemer and the captain. Eventually the plot finds our heroes marooned on the fabled Cutthroat Island, site of the treasure, as Dawg and his men arrive to collect the booty. As pirate films go, Cutthroat Island very nearly has it all: lush locations in Thailand and Malta, a robust Korngold-esque score by John Debney, walking the plank, the Jolly Roger, stashed-away treasure, danger-fueled romance, barfights and swashbuckling duels, massive sea clashes involving cannons and swinging on ropes from ship to ship, and a ship's mate monkey named King Charles.

Cutthroat Island has a decent plot as pirate pictures go, with the satisfying ideas of a female pirate (supported by the history books) and the villain being the hero's uncle, making the climactic showdown more personal than most. But the inane dialogue and general script clunkiness owes to a cursed development process by which Harlin's girlfriend Davis lobbied for an expanded role and original co-star Michael Douglas dropped out in frustration at his diminishing character. Harlin pursued an A-list replacement, but after many rejections, settled for Modine, a less than ideal action star. As for Davis, she's not entirely convincing in this context (particularly wielding heavy swords in duels against brawnier men), but not for lack of effort. The biggest strike against Cutthroat Island—apart from the mostly lame dialogue—is that it's easy to begin picturing a superior version with better casting: say, Sigourney Weaver or Linda Hamilton with Douglas or Jeff Bridges. Nevertheless, Harlin's film will always have pricy, spectacular action in its favor, reason enough for many to rediscover the film on home video.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1

Street date: 8/11/2009

Distributor: Lionsgate

Cutthroat Island looks shockingly good in its hi-def Blu-ray reissue from Lionsgate. Crisp detail and finely tuned contrast support bold and true colors and black level. The invariably clean image produces a nice depth no doubt largely owed to the preponderance of sunny location footage. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix provides amazing wraparound sound up to the task of replicating the theatrical experience, especially impressive during the ship battles.

The primary feature on the Blu-ray is a worthwhile commentary with director Renny Harlin. Gregarious and prideful, Harlin emphasizes the size and detail of the production while also conceding that various mistakes may have contributed to the film's financial failure.

The vintage EPK "Featurette" (6:08, SD) offers little in the way of depth, but there is some behind-the-scenes set footage and quick interview clips with Harlin, Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, and Frank Langella.

Rounding out the disc are the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:03, SD), "Teaser Trailer" (1:21, SD), and Lionsgate's bookmark feature.

If Disney has made your kids hungry for more pirate adventure, Cutthroat Island may be just the ticket.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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