Even the best can have a bad outing. Everyone can have a bad day. In film, a bad day equates to a flop or, worse, a bomb. Such is the case with the 1995 film, Cutthroat Island. Produced and directed by Renny Harlin and starring Geena Davis, the movie had a budget of under $100 million, but only brought in $10 million at the box office. At the time, Davis had success with films like Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own. Harlin had directed Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, among other films. At the time of filming, Davis and Harlin were married to each other, a Hollywood couple. What happened?

The cast was solid, with Davis as the pirate Morgan Adams, Matthew Modine as William Shaw, and Frank Langella as rival pirate Dawg Brown. The plot followed Morgan as she retrieved a map split between her father and her uncles, a map that would lead to a treasure stolen from the Spanish worth more than the average pirate crewman could imagine. The first part of the map, which Morgan retrieved from her father, is written in Latin. Fortunately, there is someone who can read the language – William Shaw, who got caught in some thievery and was now on auction as a slave. Morgan and Shaw face not just Dawg and his bloodthirsty crew but also the British navy.

Once Morgan has all three parts, she works out where the treasure is buried, the location of the titular island. A mutiny by her crew forces Morgan and her loyalists off in a longboat in the middle of a storm. The longboat gets wrecked, but when the skies clear, Cutthroat Island is in sight. However, so is her ship, with the mutineers aligned with Dawg. The climax of the movie sees Morgan leading her loyalists back on to her ship to battle Dawg in ship-to-ship and man-to-man combat.

Cuttthroat Island is labeled an action-adventure comedy. The action part is undeniable. The movie opens with a man trying to betray Morgan, leading to a race through Kingston, Jamaica. The action pieces are varied, with a chase in Kingston featuring a carriage pursued by British soldiers on horseback with the Royal Navy firing from off-shore, swords fights, and the climactic boarding action. The action scenes are well shot, with a flow that brings the audience through the scene. The scenes have a goal, whether escaping, racing to return to the ship, or avenging dead family. Renny Harlin is known for action films, and Cutthroat Island‘s action scenes are well done.

The adventure part is also covered. Action and adventure tend to go hand-in-hand, but it is possible for action without adventure. The adventure provides the story, the why for the characters. In Cutthroat Island, Morgan’s push to find the treasure her father and uncles rightfully stole from the Spanish drives the plot. Even Dawg, responsible for killing Morgan’s father and at least one uncle, is secondary compared to the treasure. The action scenes complement the adventure, emphasizing the race to find the treasure. The only drawback of the adventure is that it has been done before. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, first published in 1883, set the roadmap for this sort of story. However, it’s not necessarily the plot, but how the plot is executed. It is safe to say that Cutthroat Island does deliver on adventure.

Comedy is subjective, with what one person finds funny, another may find shocking or even horrifying. The comedy in Cutthroat Island, though, comes and goes. The movie starts off with some risque humour, but the comedy fades as the action and adventure gets going. The movie tries to keep things light, though. Morgan and her crew are in danger, as appropriate for a an action-adventure. The comedy aspects pop up here and there, but it’s not an element running through the film.

The comedy is a symptom of the problem running through the film. The action and adventure are well represented, possibly over-represented. There’s little breathing time to get to know the characters; most of the character development happens during the action scenes, with the rest being implied. The romance between Morgan and Shaw is non-existent, at best implied. While it is obvious that the two characters are meant to end up with each other, the movie doesn’t provide the reason why. The two characters don’t trust each other, one a pirate and the other a thief, and until the treasure is found, there’s no reason for them to do so.

If the audience can’t empathize with the characters, the audience will be left feeling cold. Cutthroat Island doesn’t spend time letting the audience get to know who the characters are. Even Morgan, the lead character, doesn’t get that much development. As can be seen in the trailer, the movie promises action, but it lacks in areas that would satisfy audiences.

At the time the movie was shot, the production company, Carolco, was having financial problems. Cutthroat Island‘s budget was originally $60 million, then grew to under $100 million. Some of the budget increase most likely came from filming sea battles and scenes, plus location shots. The cost of filming to make it look a ship is at sea does cost; Waterworld ran into similar cost issues, being primarily set at sea. Obviously, the filming didn’t occur at sea, but at a set with a tank set up to simulate the sea. Cutthroat Island looks great, but that appearance came with a cost.

Audiences were turned off from the film the first weekend, and word of mouth did the rest of the work. The lesson studios learned from the film was, “don’t make pirate movies”. Cutthroat Island wasn’t the only pirate movie to have problems; even 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island made $3 million over budget. Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series broke the pattern, mainly on the antics of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. The real lesson from Cutthroat Island is to make sure the script allows for character development and gives time for a designated romance to take root.

One way to remake Cutthroat Island and learn from its mistakes is to give more time to highlight characters. The movie runs slightly over two hours, so there may not be time to fit in and still be marketable. However, television does allow for character time while still providing for action and adventure. Television would also handle some of the budgetary problems, allowing for some expenses, particularly the ship at sea scene, to be spread across multiple episodes, with some episodes shot solely on land to ease expenses without appearing to be a cost cutting measure.

Cutthroat Island is worth a look, keeping in mind its weaknesses. The action is riveting; it just can’t carry the film. The movie just failed to bring in an audience.


This article was originally published at THE REMAKE ZONE.

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