Cutthroat Island is considered a bad film. It's not that bad. However, this is a film that flopped at the box office. 92 million dollars to make, and only $10 million in ticket sales. I watched it in 1997, and thought it was quite good at the time, but haven't been able to find it since. It's said to be the film that hammered the final stake into pirate movies. Well, since then, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has resurrected the genre... and recently I managed to get hold of a copy of Cutthroat Island.
I always got the impression that this film did poorly because it got hammered by public opinion. I remember the main criticism of the film, and that was always along the lines of, "Why does a woman have the lead role in a pirate movie?" - and nobody gave the obvious response of: "Why not?". There are other theories about it - competing against Jumanji and Heat, people didn't like pirate movies any more, and so on... but frankly I don't buy it. I remember The Quick and the Dead and The Long Kiss Goodnight also getting harsh responses, for the same reason as this film.
The plot itself is a generic pirate movie involving a race to gather portions of a map to buried treasure. Morgan Adams rescues her father from her psychotic uncle, and then tries to get the next piece of the map from the other uncle, who doesn't plan on murdering the entire family. With the pieces of the map that show the location of the island in hand, she sets off for Cutthroat Island. Typical pirate plot points ensue, the treasure is found, there's a huge ship battle... You get the idea.
No film is perfect, and in this one what grates the most is some of the dialogue. Frankly, some of the lines just don't work, and the delivery isn't that great - Generally I'd say it doesn't always flow well. The acting is hit and miss. At times, Geena Davis seems to be practising for The Long Kiss Goodnight instead of concentrating on playing a pirate - though she's still interesting to watch in the role. Matthew Modine is frankly boring - the monkey is a better actor. While it's acceptable for main characters to be upstaged by the villain (it's practically a requirement), when the extras are upstaging the leads, the movie is floundering.
So what's good? Well, this film definitely feels like a pirate movie. The sheer effort (and sizeable fortune) put into the sets, the ships, and everything else, is fantastic. The locations don't feel like sets, which means there's that extra level of immersion. The escape scene at the start reaches the level where other movies go home and cry because they can't have such over the top action scenes. At the end, one of the two ships specially built for the film is blown up. That's one million dollars worth of shipbuilding, exploded for your viewing pleasure.
That's really what this is - a spectacle. Apparently this was pushed as a return to the Golden Age of Hollywood, the time when it's claimed full-scale ships were built for films and floated in a tank for the staging of sea battles. Well, this really is a film where ships were built, fake typhoons were engineered, and generally the whole thing is an attempt to make an impressive film. It gets pretty close.
To be honest, It's not quite as good as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl - but I'd consider watching this over its two sequels. The lack of CGI made for a nice change, and the lack of double-act comedy sidekicks is welcome. It doesn't take itself seriously, it has sword fights, sea battles, Geena Davis, and if you have to resort to purchasing it... you can probably get it dirt cheap.
Providing you can overlook the flaws and enjoy the good parts, of course. Honestly, it's an average film - but it's nowhere near as bad as people make it out to be.