Cutthroat Island (1995) is the only big full-on pirate movie between Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and… Hook (1991) maybe, and The Goonies (1985). And, maybe… that Pippi Longstocking film. Ehh. Cutthroat Island is mostly famous for being the most painful box office bomb of all time. This bloated movie cost most than 115 million dollars to make and made only 18 million back. After this, Hollywood definitely lost all faith in pirate movies for a long time. But is it really that bad? How does it measure up to Pirates of the Caribbean? Let’s have a look.
First, the soundtrack. Pirates have a way of inspiring composers, but John Debney’s score for Cutthroat Island is seriously one of the best soundtracks ever written for a movie. Not just for pirate movies; for movies, period. It is better than Hans Zimmer’s score for Pirates of the Caribbean. It is the very definition of swashbuckling adventure. It is what you imagine good pirate music would be. It is bold, romantic, proud, rousing and thematically complex. One reason why I always wanted to see this movie is because I have owned the soundtrack for about 15 years, but I have yet to see the movie behind it.
Geena Davis plays a pirate daughter named Morgan and she is supposed to be a strong yet sexy female protagonist, kicking ass and male balls of course. I have my doubts over this casting, because Davis has a sort of softness and warmth about her that doesn’t match well with her role. She doesn’t radiate the authority of a captain. The second main role is that of the thief William Shaw, played by the largely forgotten Matthew Modine. He’s the charmer and smooth-talker, but reads all of lines in the same bland way.
The dialogue is absolutely horrendous. Every second line uttered by Geena Davis has some sleazy sexual pun in it. It doesn’t help to establish her character as pirate captain. Basically, saying bad jokes and punching men in the face is the extent of her personality. In fact, all characters are flat and hurt by bad dialogue. Half of it is meant to be comedic, especially everything Matthew Modine says, but it all falls flat. Every single comedic line falls flat. The problem is that all of the film’s dialogue is comedic lines.
Truth be told, most of these characters are not more ridiculous than those in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The villain, Uncle Douglas – or Dawg – played by the always great Frank Langella is typical villainous pirate fare. He growls, kills; the only difference with the Pirates movies is that he is not undead.
All those millions of dollars went into the production of sets, costumes and explosions, which makes the movie feel very grounded in an existing world. In our age of green-screen computer-generated backgrounds, this is wonderful to see. Filmed in and around Malta, an island covered in harbors and 17th century fortifications, all standing in wonderfully for English colonies in the Caribbean.
It isn’t all bad. In fact, Cutthroat Island is quite a watchable movie. Sure, the fighting is not well choreographed. Davis and Modine couldn’t win a swordfight against a chair. Davis utters one-lines that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger ashamed. It is filmed in a very matter-of-fact way. But there is true energy and passion behind the movie. It is a movie that truly believes in itself. They are truly proud of their explosions. It is like watching a high-school stage show where you applaud because the kids are so proud of themselves. It’s just a pity that Davis and Modine’s acting and their lines are so unbelievable.