After the tradition of the big swashbuckling epics of the Golden Age - things like Michael Curtiz's Captain Blood (1935) and The Sea Hawk (1940), Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926) and, most flamboyant of them all, Burt Lancaster and his little hairy buddy in The Crimson Pirate (1952) - Renny Harlin, who had a period in the nineties when he could be depended upon to bring crowd-pleasing action/adventures crashing across the screen with the type of elaborate mayhem that Curtiz and his brethren had to recruit an army to recreate, bravely sought to revitalise a genre long believed to have sunk to the bottom of the box office briny. The pirate picture, so beloved of the lavish costume-drama fraternity of Hollywood's most ambitious era, had been set adrift a long time before, its treasure chest seemingly only fashionable to have Muppets chasing after it. There had been some valiant attempts to bring it back alongside us, though. We'd had the amazingly brutal Jules Verne adaptation from Kevin Billington with The Light At The Edge Of The World (1971), starring Kirk Douglas, and Michael Cain battling time-displaced marauders in the critically mauled (though actually quite authentic and exciting) The Island, from 1980. Even the great Roman Polanski sailed blithely into extremely hostile waters with his much-derided mega-flop, Pirates, in 1986 and the tide certainly didn't seem about to turn for the man who once blasted Bruce Willis out of a grenade-filled cockpit in Die Hard 2: Die Harder and sent Sly Stallone shinning-up snow-encrusted mountains in Cliffhanger. In fact, his large-scale, monumentally expensive rip-snorting homage to all things barnacled and cutlass-wielding, rang the nautical death-bell for the genre, scuppered a studio and dragged his once-agreeable style for excess onto the rocks of severe disrepute. His over-the-top Old School spectacle, Cutthroat Island, which set sail in 1995, became historic for all the wrong reasons.
Starring his then-wife, Geena (The Fly/Thelma And Louise) Davis and Matthew (Full Metal Jacket) Modine as, respectively, a notorious, devil-may-care buccaneer and a conniving, aristocratic trickster, both plying their trade across the dangerous and duplicitous islands of the West Indies, the plot is pure flotsam and jetsam. Engaged in a vicious ongoing duel with her scurvy uncle, the notorious Dawg Brown (a tanned and buffed Frank Langella), who murdered her father to gain a vital piece of a rather unorthodox treasure map that leads towards a massive hoard of booty secreted on Cutthroat Island, the equally renowned Morgan (Davis) is forced to recruit an educated conman called Shaw (Modine) to help her decipher the directions on the scalp-flap that is her part of the map. After mounting an outrageous prison-break to free Shaw from an English stockade and taking to the high seas with her father's trusty crew under her assumed command in search of boundless loot on the horizon, she finds herself caught in a cat-and-mouse struggle with not only the irascible Dawg, but with the pampered, wig-wearing naval custodians of the colony and their soldier-filled warship. As is customary when dealing with such lawless chancers and corrupt authorities, treachery is absolutely to be expected and no-one at all can be trusted. Thus, the story takes in betrayals and double-crossing, tit-for-tat treasure ownership, scraps and mutinies, and, of course, the obligatory full-scale fury of wanton ship-to-ship warfare.
And, considering that it has every pirate-movie ingredient press-ganged into service, how can you not sit back and enjoy the cavalcade of stunts, captures, hair's-breadth escapes and colourful characters?
Committee-written, and with realism intentionally heaved overboard, Cutthroat Island paints its Olde Worlde rogues as a romantic bunch, yet it also makes a decent effort to essay the period with enough visual decoration and style to have it appear authentic enough to soap away most of the typical high-gloss Hollywood aura. The tall ships are splendid, the costumes rich and varied, the faces weathered, scarred and beaten. The film has vigour by the hold-full. Comedy runs rife throughout, but it is character-born and charming, rather than reliant upon slapstick. Looking back at all the classical vintage seafaring capers, it is easy to see the powerful influences that were at work in Harlin's mind when he signed-on to helm the $100 million extravaganza. Swap Errol Flynn's macho posturing for a cheeky feminine alternative, but keep our rascally pirates decidedly un-bloodthirsty so as to ensure our unwavering infatuation with their mission, and he would have the standard Tinseltown formula tweaked just enough to have it seem modern and fresh. At least this was what he had in mind. Audiences didn't take to his leading lady, though. Nor did they enjoy their leading man acting like a vulnerable pansy all the time and having to be rescued by a woman every five minutes. The return to good, old-fashioned plotting was another cause for concern. The seventies had darkened audience expectations. The eighties had punched a brazen hole through that downbeat style, but intrinsically established the one-man-army ethic ... and grit still ruled. The nineties sought to wrap both ideals around one another yet, strangely, the stirring fun of an ensemble action-escapade was still out of vogue. Though I truly believe that we have Harlin and his playful powder-keg of pirates and lofty aspirations to thank, at least in part, for the noughties' embracing of massive-scale, huge budget tent-pole productions with legions of big name casts. If he hadn't taken the risk with practically all the finance of a studio and then just audaciously unearthed such a long-buried cache of standards and motifs, then it could be argued that things such as Gladiator and The Lord Of The Rings - or, at least, the scope of them - would not have germinated in the minds of their makers. Aye, that's a sweeping statement, isn't it? But, so often it takes an ambitious failure like Cutthroat Island to spark such exciting endeavours in the future.
And, that said, there's no way that Johnny Depp would be quite the superstar that he is today, or that you could guarantee an obligatory maritime dandy costume at every fancy dress party without Harlin's movie having first ignited that powder-keg.
I'd even go as far as to say that I don't think you can disassociate Cutthroat Island from the newer, superior Pirates Of The Caribbean, at all. They both feature rival bands of pirates going after the same thing. Both have comical relationships developing amongst the ostensibly “good” crew, augmented by a wholly fresh-to-buccaneering newcomer (Modine in this case, Orlando Bloom in Pirates) and a veritable maverick and unpredictable captain. Both feature a pirate-and-scum-filled island, lost to all laws, that will serve as a launch-pad to the eventual, scoundrel-sacred destination. Both films build up their geographical Maguffin and diffuse the pace by then spending far too long there, ultimately dragging the point to a dangerously gossamer-thin stretch. Both films, inarguably, blend seafaring bravado and bygone skulduggery with modern-day, in-yer-face, big budget “savvy” and a “gee-wow” proclivity towards easygoing mass appeal. Not bad points at all, I should add. Even Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk - not to mention the landlubber's pirate-tale of The Adventures Of Robin Hood - ploughed through the very same waters with his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek. But the point I'm making is that it is ridiculously unfair to knock Cutthroat Island for these elements, whilst celebrating Pirates Of The Caribbean for them. If anything, Gore Vidal's movie (egged-on, and endlessly exacerbated by two enjoyable but totally unneeded sequels) ripped-off Harlin's lavish epic, following almost the same trajectory from wiry introduction to rousing, heart-swelling finale. He even nicked the notion of a pet monkey instead of a parrot!
But the differences are plain to see, as well.
You move on almost a decade and suddenly you have endless CG. Harlin, budget cast to the seven seas, built gi-normous sets, blew them up for real and staged monumental, pell-mell chases through genuine locations jam-packed with extras and bemused locals. It is hard not to admire the sheer panache of such expenditure in the name of spectacle, and even harder not to be drawn into the wild adrenaline-rush of such ridiculously pyrotechnic set-pieces. Vidal's film, though immensely satisfying, of course, was a ramshackle affair, stuffed with too many scenes, too many characters, a script that simply didn't know when to stop and a weird pace that was either go-for-broke or ponderous. Harlin's, in comparison, was less comical and more violent, but followed a distinctly linear path that didn't carry half as much ballast to weigh it down.
But there was one thing that Pirates had over Cutthroat Island that Gore Vidal had definitely learned to his eternal credit about the earlier film's less-than illustrious fortunes. It had Captain Jack Sparrow.
Harlin's big mistake - well, that's a bit harsh ... let's call it a courageous error - was his star attraction. Funnelling the characters and exploits of real-life pirate-queens Anne Bonny and Mary Reed into his hip-slapping, jaw-kicking anti-heroine of Morgan was not a bad idea at all. The problem was that nobody could entertain the notion of Geena Davis doing all that stuff. It is true that Geena Davis is ... well, even putting it charitably ... much too ugly to be the righteous and bountiful heroine of the saga. Morgan needs to be desirable as well as redoubtable. Now, Renny Harlin, justifiably, being married to her, thought that she was - but a huge dollop of nepotism so obviously soiled that casting that, before too long, you wish that Thelma had had herself a facelift before she set sail. The thing is - and this is never to be undervalued - Davis is having a great time howling, carousing, fighting and sticking-it to the conventions of the genre (whilst, cleverly, embracing them at the same time) and her sheer vigour at throwing herself into the role is to be praised, rather than reviled. This was an incredibly difficult period in which to mount such an over-the-top cinematic throwback. Renny Harlin was definitely years ahead of the circumnavigational curve with his audacious wink at the MO of the seasoned summer blockbuster. Ridley Scott time-travelled successfully back in time to revisit ancient cinematic glories with Gladiator and, beyond any shadow of a doubt, opened the floodgates to such broadsides of historical extravagances as Troy, King Arthur, Kingdom Of Heaven and the Pirates Trilogy. Harlin had already dipped his toes in the water and found the reception cold and uninviting - but this was down to audience un-familiarity more than anything else. Too many preconceptions sank the ship, and a joyful, action-packed homage to beating chests, rhino-skinned feet, teeth-clenched knives and heaving cleavages was allowed to slip beneath the waves of harsh and erroneous critical drubbing and a forgetful audience's genre-phobia. Using a woman as his major character and “hero” was the key drawback. Of course, Davis had been the leading light of Thelma And Louise and was set to continue kicking male ass in The Long Kiss Goodnight, but they were films that deliberately set out to challenge gender stereotypes and were, perhaps, both more cerebral (Thelma And Louise) and gung-ho (Long Kiss Goodnight), whilst Cutthroat Island was ripe, testosterone-filled panto from start to finish. Made a decade earlier and you would have expected Adam Ant to have put in an appearance.
Davis is never un-likeable, for all her un-desirability and I, for one (oh well, Renny would be another) actually find her quite rewarding in the role. She is clearly throwing everything into it and, seeing her punch out blokes twice her size and hoof baddies in the spuds like a street-thug makes it easy to put up with her toothy, vowel-mangling and golf-ball-stuffed cheeks. As a love-interest, though - yeesh! Man overboard!!!! I'll take Keira Knightley any day ... or night.
Harlin built his name on action movies, yet despite the high-profiles of Cliffhanger and Deep Blue Sea (both of which I enjoy immensely - Deep Blue Sea for BD soon, please!) his movies do lack a certain something even in the bedlam stakes. Cliffhanger, especially, never quite hit that high adrenaline level, despite having Sly leaping across mountain chasms in nowt but a vest. His set-pieces either collapse under the weight of too much grandeur ... or just not enough. And, once we get beyond that ribald, stop-for-nothing first half, Cutthroat Island also falls into this trap. Basically, once we set foot on the titular tropical islet, the pace becomes bogged-down, the action stymied and Harlin drops the ball. Too many times in Cliffhanger and Die Hard 2 he would allow some tense scenes to falter - some ice-sliding in the dark and the woefully inept night-vision hunt in the former, the snow-bike chase, exploding cockpit and wing-top brawl - as though he literally lapsed into a reverie behind the camera and just let people get on with it without urging them on for another, better take, and this lack of concentration mires the second half of Cutthroat Island, as well. Harlin seems to think that his vine-swinging cliff-cave sequence is going to set the pulse racing - it doesn't. He also wastes too much time on Modine's slow sinking into a pit of quicksand. A nocturnal theft and the mayhem that it causes seems very tenuously edited-in to the narrative, and the whole "who can we trust?" shenanigans regarding the map goes well past its sell-by date. This inability to successfully sustain tension and build, build, build on the mounting suspense of successive sequences is something that seems to dog him. The protracted final battle, like so much of the Pirates Trilogy that would follow, also goes on for far too long, losing momentum with too much Van Helsing-style rope swinging and an endless assembly-line of individual skirmishes reliant on “sword-thrust and then punch” combinations. Yet, having said that, I still enjoy such en mass chaos.
And you can't deny that the locations are stunning. With Malta and Thailand standing in for the Caribbean, we get convincing looking ports and coastal hamlets, fabulously exotic island archipelagos, similar to those seen in The Man With The Golden Gun, Tomorrow Never Dies and The Beach, and as many coves, bays and shores as you can imagine scampering across. The set-pieces are huge. With an opening that provides a high-speed horse ride across a picturesque sand-shelf and an underwater rescue, Harlin immediately sets his sights high and never dips back below. Another much bigger and far more explosive rescue mission shortly afterwards lays waste to vast portions of Port Royal's seafront, the escapade taking in death-defying leaps from scaffolding, amazing stunt-work with a charging carriage and some audacious tracking-shot mayhem that sees Morgan career through a primitive fashion-house, whilst Shaw rides beneath it, the two finally meeting up again on the other side after some proudly self-conscious slow-motion pyrotechnics. Harlin, as you know, likes things to blow things up. And blow them up big time. Without the aid of CG, he dynamites almost everything in the film that is more than a foot square, the screen often becoming a positive welter of spinning shards of wood, flame-tipped splinters flying in cosmetically appealing directions like a high-incendiary-junkie's wet-dream. As shallow as the film may be, otherwise, these rainbow-coloured shrapnel-fests are hugely enjoyable. You can literally see the film's budget, and Carolco, going up in flames. And, rightly or wrongly, I love such vibrant excess, especially with the hindsight knowledge that what I am seeing is tantamount to a movie's deliriously unwitting self-annihilation.
The chases, the quests, the encounters and the giddy sense of round-house entertainment pervades almost every scene. Harlin, oblivious to the repercussions of such a spiralling endeavour, relishes every shot. He titillates the audience with frequent thigh shots of his missus and hoists her cleavage into some spine-snapping corsets - all of which is required for such a time-honoured vixen - but then takes her into pure Rambo/Indiana Jones mode as she swings heroically from ship to ship, takes on hordes of violent enemies and finds herself in all manner of precariously dangling positions. This is husbandly fantasy taken to ludicrous extremes. He was clearly adoring every brazen stance, vertigo-inducing plunge and sword-swinging pirouette that he could get her to make, almost as though he was intending to create a new female action hero. For this conviction they must both - Harlin and Davis - be applauded. But, for all the tense bravado and comical, full-blooded zeal that she exhibits, there is no getting away from the fact that Geena Davis just doesn't look right in the role. Popular consensus has it that both she and Modine are woefully miscast. Modine does come across like a low-rent version of Cary Elwes' Westley in The Princess Bride much more than he does a fresh take on Errol Flynn - well, he can't be “in-like-Flynn” with Davis doing all the swashing of buckles, can he? But, personally, I found it easier to warm to his conniving, untrustworthy, yet eternally doomed schemes than I did for Davis' hard-fought, hard-earned swagger.
But the key thing in all of this is fun. When the cast are having a great time, it is that much easier for us to have a great time too. Thus, I have to admit that I can accept both of them in heroic roles that neither should really be inhabiting.
The supporting cast are another mix of partly colourful, partly forgettable goons, ruffians and maritime miscreants. The muscular Stan Shaw, who doesn't appear to have aged a bit from his early role in the 1978 Vietnam War drama, The Boys In Company C, adopts a thoroughly clichéd Jamaican patois, but is a solid enough rock for the good-guy ensemble to anchor themselves to. Local boy (well, local to me, anyway) Carl Chase also crops up as a limb-crunching henchman and Cliffhanger's foul-mouthed FBI traitor, Rex Linn, gives his face some impressive tattoos and Hell's Angel mutton-chops as an equally sinewy sailor. However, even though Frank Langella makes a lusty, and appropriately swarthy villain out of Dawg, the character lacks venom. It is debatable how much we are supposed to fear him, but the problem is that he is actually a little too non-threatening. Langella looks the part, though, especially when demoniacally framed amidst raging fires and glaring at Morgan as she slips through his fingers yet again, and it is great to see how pumped-up he had gotten himself. Swinging down from the yardarm (or whatever it's called) and clashing with Davis, Dawg provides a suitably physical presence for Morgan to battle. But his little parroting of the upper-class English vernacular - “Trotter ... Trot-ter” - and sundry other “too-likeable” qualities reduce his menace quite considerably.
Yet, even from such renowned failures, something of enduring glory can surface. The sweeping, grand old symphonic score from John Debney is, and rightly so, regarded as a bonafide classic. Running almost continuously alongside the film, in that resplendent, ebullient wall-to-wall style of the vintage actioners, Debney deliberately evokes memories of Steiner, Korngold and Tiomkin with brassy broadsides, surging waves of strings and an invigorating main fanfare that embeds itself in your mind with such upbeat jollity and derring-do that you can actually find yourself watching the movie just to savour the music. Already available in two CD incarnations - one of them a more recent “extended” version, that I totally recommend - the film is wonderfully emboldened by its dramatic vigour. It is also terrific to experience the results of a composer who conjures up the might of a full orchestra (the 120-piece London Symphony Orchestra, no less) to colour such a ripe adventure as this. Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt, working on the Pirates series, used banks of synths and an armada of samples to create something that tried desperately to emulate such genuine magic. This, folks, is the real deal - and another example of just how determined Renny Harlin was to have Cutthroat Island flow comfortably in the wake of the briny sagas of the past.
Well, I have to say that, with some reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Cutthroat Island again and wouldn't hesitate in recommending that adventure-lovers should chart a course for its colourful and hectic waters, themselves. The water really isn't bad, at all.
It may have sunk a studio, but its name is not cursed, and now that it has sailed back into port, you could do far worse than down a bottle of rum with it.
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