For such a vaunted film genre as the pirate movie, the box office returns have been pretty unpredictable through the years. While those with short memories may think that every swashbuckler arriving at their local megaplex has been an epic success of Pirates of the Caribbean proportions, in fact the waters are littered with the detritus of scores of pirate movies that have sunk like a galleon shot to swiss cheese smithereens by scores of cannonballs. The Pirate Movie, Swashbuckler and a host of others in relatively recent history never quite captured the fancy of the movie going public, but none rose quite to the Heaven's Gate excesses of Renny Harlin's 1995 opus, Cutthroat Island, a film that cost the then pretty astounding price of over $90 million and barely managed to bring in about one tenth of that amount in box office receipts.
But the simple (and pretty obvious) fact is you can't always judge a film's merits solely on the basis of how well it was received by the movie going public at the time of its initial release. If Cutthroat Island is most certainly no masterpiece, and is often jettisoned by the uneasy lead performance of Geena Davis (then Mrs. Harlin) as female pirate Morgan Adams, it nonetheless provides a surprising amount of vim and vigor, if not outright piratey intrigue in the best Jack Sparrow fashion, as it follows the exploits of Adams and her ne'er-do-well tag along, William Shaw (Matthew Modine), a thief who happens to speak Latin (of course), something Adams needs to decipher a map to the hidden treasure land of, yep, you guessed it, Cutthroat Island. Frank Langella chews the scenery as Adams' evil Uncle Dawg, owner of one third of a map to the fabled isle, and a man who will resort to just about anything to claim the other two thirds.
It's sometimes hard to divorce oneself as a viewer from the hype, both positive and negative, that a film brings with it to the viewing experience. Cutthroat Island was mercilessly derided in its day, a prime example, along with Cimino's folie á un (if there's such a thing), as filmmaking hubris writ large. And yet, there's a lot to enjoy about the film. It plays its larger than life elements superbly, offering a convincing recreation of its times, with exceptional production design, cinematography and staging. Modine makes for a rather spry leading man, the sort of scheming bad guy who's really a good guy at heart that Michael Douglas (who evidently was first offered this role) did in the similarly themed, if more modernized, Romancing the Stone. There are also stunts galore, some fantastic battle sequences, and a simply fun mystery at the heart of Cutthroat Island that all add up to pure entertainment, nothing more, nothing less.
Where the film falls short, at least some of the time, is with Davis. She's an unusual actress, as her on-again off-again career has proven. Able to project a certain Earth-mother naturalness (something that helped her to an Oscar in The Accidental Tourist), but also sort of tic-filled at times in a generally likable Jack Lemmon sort of way, she's simply too cultured to be portraying the ribald Morgan Adams. In fact when the character occasionally (and only occasionally, mind you) wanders into grammatically incorrect usage ("what do them people want," for example), it's cringe-worthy, only because you can't imagine someone of Davis' pedigree ever uttering such a thing, no matter what kind of character she happens to be playing. While there's certainly a scrappy native intelligence to Morgan's character, Davis brings her famously Mensa sized brain to her portrayal, and it's like watching a weird science fiction hybrid film where a genius' intellect has been magically transported into the hardscrabble life of a seventeenth century criminal. It's interesting, in an uncomfortable sort of way, but it never adds up to a convincing performance.
Overall, however, Cutthroat Island is a film that really doesn't deserve the lambasting it has been subject to in the decade plus since its release. Timing is everything, as some wag once said, and I have to wonder how things might have played differently had it been Pirates of the Caribbean released in 1995 and Cutthroat Island that took Captain Jack's place a few years later. While there's little of the supernatural element that helped at least partially propel the Caribbean franchise (not to mention no Disney tie in), Cutthroat Island has the same insouciance that characterizes the Gore Verbinski trifecta, at least sometimes matching it in the stunt sequence arena as well. Fans of the Caribbean trio may well want to revisit Cutthroat Island again if they haven't dropped by for a while, and new viewers may well find they're in for quite a bit of fun, despite the film's flaws.