Ahoy! Why ‘Cutthroat Island’ Isn’t the ’90s Shipwreck We Were Told

As we look back on 1995 and the cinematic buried treasure it left us, it’s time to give overdue praise to that year’s most notorious flop.

No, not “Showgirls,” which has redeemed itself as a cult film with an adoring movement behind it. Look no further than Jeffrey McHale’s great 2020 documentary, “You Don’t Nomi.”

Actually, the biggest money loser from 25 years ago wasn’t just a box office bust but among the biggest bombs ever.

I’m talking about Renny Harlin’s “Cutthroat Island,” a colossal pirate adventure that lost so much money it helped the cash-starved Carolco (the once-powerhouse studio behind “Rambo: Blood Part II,” “Total Recall, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Basic Instinct”) go bankrupt.

Missed release dates, industry gossip of a tremendously difficult shoot and poor pre-release word of mouth helped it die a quick death in theaters. Looking at it today, it’s a vision of what the Pirate Movie genre was before Disney and Johnny Depp re-shaped it — an old-fashioned, CGI-free epic that reflects the days of, no joke, Cecil B. DeMille.

“Cutthroat Island” was a disaster in its day but removed from reviews painful enough to make the filmmakers go “Aaaargh,” it’s kind of wonderful.

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Filmed in Malta and Thailand, it stars Geena Davis as Morgan Adams, a wanted pirate who holds a much sought after treasure map, which was printed on (I’m not kidding) the scalp of a dead relative. Her uncle, a vicious pirate named “Dawg” (Frank Langella) has turned against her, racing to gain the treasure on the mythical Cutthroat Island.

Aiding Morgan is a thief and con artist named William Shaw (Matthew Modine) and a crew that includes a motley group of unlawful marauders and a scene-stealing monkey.

“Cutthroat Island” is wildly entertaining from the very start. For a movie that was saturated in bad press in its day, there is no feeling of an out-of-control project. Yes, it’s big and clunky but also has a sense of fun and grandeur that never wanes.

John Debney’s score perfectly sets the tone, as do the gorgeous establishing shots of Davis riding a horse on a beach during sunset.

Some of the one-liners are so bad, they deserve to walk the plank (or at least be forced to scrub the poop deck). Langella actually enters a busy action scene and asks rhetorically, “Who wants to die first?”

The imagery is rich, recreating the pulpy feel and grandeur of Robert Louis Stevenson stories.

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Then there’s the stunt work, which is insane, many of which Davis visibly did herself; it’s a wonder that this movie didn’t kill her. The explosions in this, of which there are many, are so big they cover the sets in angry, orange plumes of smoke.

Harlin knows where the money shots are. He wisely, during a Davis/Modine smooch, cuts away to the monkey looking embarrassed. When a town is exploding in slow motion, Harlin amusingly shows us not just a coffin being tipped over but a corpse rolling out of it.

Davis is giving exactly the kind of performance Angelina Jolie delivered as Laura Croft. There is a winking joy in her work, even as she totally invests in the role. Modine was a last-minute replacement for Michael Douglas and, at best, his performance is serviceable.

FAST FACT: “Cutthroat Island” generated $10 million at the U.S. box office in 1995, a microscopic figure compared to its $100 million budget. 

He especially struggles to give his quips some bite (a problem Douglas would not have had) but at least he looks like he’s having a blast. For those wanting a glimpse of a parallel dimension where Douglas is still the star of “Cutthroat Island,” look no further than his performance and especially his appearance in “The Ghost and the Darkness” (1996).

Langella, finding career momentum after his scene stealing turn in “Dave,” is excellent playing the main villain.

While Harlin’s film lacks a performance like Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow at its center, it has a big advantage over all of the Disney/Depp vehicles. Unlike those bloated “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, “Cutthroat Island” is a tight two hours, with a momentum that is always roaring forward to the next big set piece.

While positioning Davis’ Morgan Adams as the film’s true lead is both a successful narrative decision and ahead-of-its-time, not all the creative decisions work. There’s an unwise choice to deem Modine’s character a “slave” early on, a choice the movie doesn’t know what to do with and just drops by the third act.

Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” (1980) famously went enormously over-budget, was a total flop and bankrupted its studio, though that film is now revered and even got a Criterion Collection reappraisal.

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Truthfully, if I had to choose between re-watching Cimino’s respectable but overlong slog or the movie or one where Davis jumps out a two-story window onto a horse at full gallop, it’s the latter movie for the win.

Harlin has never been respected as a filmmaker but, particularly in the action movie genre, he’s one of the best. The most remarkable scenes in “Die Hard 2” and “Cliffhanger,” his biggest hits, are jaw dropping in their staging and realization of a wild concept.

Note the highly stylized way in “Die Hard 2” where Bruce Willis’ John McClane uses an ejector seat to escape certain doom.

Harlin broke out with his surprisingly inventive handling of “A Nightmare on Elm St. 4: The Dream Master,” made a series of successful films, rebounded after the flop of this one, and has been stuck making B-movies for the past decade.

Davis and Harlin were a power couple when they made this movie and worked together three times — he produced “Speechless” (1994), Davis’ better-than-most remember romantic comedy, which co-starred Michael Keaton and was based on the romance between Democrat James Carville and Republican Mary Matalin.

Today, “Cutthroat Island” remains a little-seen attraction that most know as a film trivia footnote as The Biggest Movie Bomb of All Time. It’s a title the film held onto until 2001, with the release of the insanely over-budget Warren Beatty vehicle, “Town & Country.”

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Had “Cutthroat Island” made its original summer movie release, it would have butted heads (if not ship masts) with “Waterworld” and suffered from comparison. Instead, it was held back for a Christmas Day release, opening against juggernauts like “Goldeneye,” “Toy Story” and “Heat.”

It never stood a chance.

Looking at it today, devoid of all the poison press, it’s incredibly silly, unafraid to embrace the corniness of an antiquated genre and doesn’t always hit the mark. For all clunkiness, there is a showmanship, both in its scale and Davis’ willingness to take on Jackie Chan-worthy stunts, that is thrilling to witness.

Following the brutal pre and post-release press of “Cutthroat Island,” they made one more film together: “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (1996), which was penned by Shane Black, starred Davis and Samuel L. Jackson.

It’s Harlin’s true masterpiece,

That film let Harlin upend genre expectations, giving Davis a much better showcase as a true action movie star and serviced Black’s cracked take on film noir. Davis’ work in “The Long Kiss Goodnight” is astonishing, with both her performance and the movie too ahead of their time to register during release.

Although best known as a dramatic and comedic actress (her powerful work in “Thelma & Louise” and “The Fly” is a high point), her time as Harlin’s muse resulted in two cult movies that are overdue for a true rediscovery.

RELATED: The Undeniable Reason ‘Clue’ Became a Cult Classic

Arriving a decade after Roman Polanski’s “Pirates” also sank in theaters (though without leaving any impression), “Cutthroat Island” was made an example of the film that not only sank its studio but also the Pirate Movie genre.

It’s a shame that today, movies about pirates have to stand on the shoulders of endless CGI and infusions of fantasy to justify their existence.

Despite all the trouble it took to make and the beating it took from critics, “Cutthroat Island” is far better than its undeserved reputation. Far more than a guilty pleasure or a mere curiosity item, it’s a full-scale recreation of the kind of movie they don’t make anymore and, on this practical scale, never will again.

When a movie already jam-packed with eye-popping visuals concludes with what looks like the mother of all explosions, you know Harlin and everyone involved went full throttle in making this battered epic sail so forcefully.

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