Before releasing big budget pirate movies was cool, a film called CutThroat Island made its way to theaters. Starring Geena Davis and Matthew Modine, the film was a typical pirate caper and, by today’s standards, is the very definition of an exciting and action packed blockbuster. For various reasons that both did and didn’t have to do with the film, however, CutThroat Island failed to impress audiences and critics and became a perfect definition of the term “flop.” With a $100 million dollar budget, the film would eventually go to pull in under $10 million domestically. Perhaps it just wasn’t timed right (it was released just a few days prior to Christmas) or maybe it was the films lack of big name actors…but CutThroat Island has since disappeared from the spotlight and is relegated to brief memories that crop up when people try to think of a time before Pirates of the Caribbean.
After the death of her father, Morgan Adams (Davis) discovers part of a treasure map tattooed on his head. With the help of William Shaw (Modine), a convict she buys at an auction, Morgan hits the high seas to recover the remaining sections. However, she is not alone: her murderous uncle Dawg (Langella), who holds the puzzle’s final piece, also seeks the gold. With a mutinous crew and the soldiers of the British crown in hot pursuit, Morgan and William set sail for Cutthroat Island, where the treasure – and danger – awaits.
From the start of this film I was genuinely amazed by how fantastic it looked and sounded. I had expected something like a low-budget Pirates of the Caribbean type outing, but no…this is every bit the eye candy that those films were. Hell, a lot of this film is even pretty close to the way the first film of that trilogy played out, with a daring escape from the armada, a rendezvous with other pirates and an eventual location of a bunch of treasure that’s conveniently lit by some great gaping hole in the ceiling, so light can shine through.
Now I’m not being bitter or anything; I can’t fault this film for doing not only what are considered pirate film staples but also doing them nearly a decade prior when the first Pirates film would sail into theaters. No, I’m really just remarking about the similarities between the two films and, in addition, wondering how the hell the more recent Pirate films did such gangbuster business at the box office and how CutThroat made 1/10th of its budget back. It’s a sign of the times, I suppose, as we’re left with, structurally speaking, identical films, but still…it’s amazing.
Of course there’s a reason why CutThroat Island hasn’t kicked up any kind of remarkable fanbase or cult status. The fact of the matter is that what people remember most about the Pirates of the Caribbean films are the characters. While CutThroat has Jack Sparrow like characters, they’re not as eccentric or attention demanding. The villain here also isn’t all that menacing either, looking more like a General Zod in less clothing than anything. Sure, Terrance Stamp was intimidating and I’m not saying Frank Langella isn’t also a force to be reckoned with, but the fact of the matter is this film just didn’t have the same presence of characters that it did with the action and explosions. It had all the right makings of a brilliant action movie, but skimped more on the plot and characters more than…well, more than a Jerry Bruckheimer production.
It’s a shame too, because this film really was quite entertaining. When I found it tiresome, I realized it was because of the underdeveloped characters. They were all given personalities of their own, but none of it was developed; our “slave” remained just that and we never got any real idea of his true intentions, which made him hard to read. Geena Davis’s character was even worse, as a pirate who apparently sleeps with random men, only to jump out of his window and scalp her father’s head and lead his crew. What’s her deal? She never shows much emotion in any regard and it seemed like the romance between her and Modine was there just to distract the audience. There was no sparks between the two and it never felt real…it all just felt like a by-the-books relationship with nothing to show for it. Other characters had similar flaws, such the first mate or whatever that tattooed faced guy was; at the end when they’re all sitting round the treasure and when he apparently made a “joke” that he dreamed of being a farmer or some such…I actually thought that was a literal statement. They’re so underdeveloped that you can’t read any of them or tell when someone’s doing something like making a simple joke.
Then of course there is the plot itself which is paper-thin. There’s no big mystery and the treasure that the three maps eventually lead to does really exist and it is really recovered in the end and…that’s it? Not only that, but if the three map holders were apparently acquainted with one another and, at some point, loving brothers, why didn’t they just freakin’ go get the treasure themselves? It’s a plot very light on details and when you begin to scrutinize it at all it just unravels and becomes very dull.
Honestly there’s a lot to enjoy while watching this film, but not a lot to go back to afterwards. It’s every bit the action film the Pirate series was with exciting action and ship blasting finale…but there’s just no plot or characters worthwhile when it comes to this film. It’s the comedic situations, characters, and mysterious plot that made the Pirates series fun to watch. Watching CutThroat Island just made me want to watch Johnny Depp and crew, because with them I’d get the same movie and something with a little more substance. Odd to say that about a Bruckheimer film, but…hey. Strange world we live in. Also the dialogue and one liners in this film were embarrassingly bad at times; there was a line from Davis early in the film about going back to visit a shop or something that both sounded stupid and was delivered very, very badly. That or it was a really bad dub.
Overall if you’re looking for a pirate fix to tide you over, then this really isn’t that bad of a film. It just won’t be something you return to. Rent It.
Released alongside Chaos and The Ninth Gate, I expected CutThroat Island to be the worst looking of the three releases being the oldest but…surprise! More attention and care went into this transfer than both of the aforementioned movies combined. The movie itself comes in a standard Elite Eco Blu-ray case without any inserts. Disc art is a shot of the two boats battling and menu is a simple and easy to navigate effort.
Video is an AVC encoded effort that looks quite outstanding. The level of detail is simply amazing and this is truly a fantastic looking film. I was blown away by how sharp the picture on this looked and when I researched the previous releases of this movie, it’s easy to see why. The only release this film saw was an old release from 2000 and it was a letterboxed widescreen event so this marks the first time the film has ever even seen an anamorphic transfer…so I assume the “Newly Remastered Widescreen Presentation” listed in the disc specifications isn’t kidding around. If you were a fan of this film at all, then you should definitely pick this release up just for the new video transfer.
Oh and the audio? A DTS-HD 7.1 surround sound mix that genuinely makes use of those surround channels. Bullets, explosions, pieces of boat flying around…everything is in this mix and there’s plenty of LFE to back it all up. Once again I was surprised by how great this film worked on Blu-ray and, if anything, this is a testament to how even box office failures can make use of the Blu-ray format. Full (and beautiful) 1080p and 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio? Few films that have won Oscar’s are even lucky enough to receive to such treatment.
Extras are pretty light, unfortunately, but the headline extra here is a newly recorded Commentary with Director Renny Harlin. There is some talk about the disappointment that this film brought down on everyone and the pressures that a big budget motion picture like this can have on someone, but overall the track is worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of the film. It can get technical, but still it’s not a bad track…and the only real extra on the disc, so you’ll have to make do. The only other extra is an archival Featurette (6:08, SD) that is fairly underwhelming and a pair of Theatrical Trailers, also in standard definition.
Overall a mediocre film, but a fantastic Blu-ray. If only for the action, I could see popping this title in down the line again. It really does look and sound great. Recommended.
CutThroat Island is now available on Blu-ray.