Film Reviews

Woman Overboard!

When was the last time you saw a decent pirate movie? In recent years screen buccaneers have had better luck sacking filmmakers' careers than they have a-pillagin' and a-plunderin'. In 1980 Michael Ritchie's The Island managed the extraordinary feat of out-dumbing the imbecilic Peter Benchley novel from which it was adapted. The sneering ridicule heaped upon Roman Polanski's 1986 comedy Pirates (starring that swashbuckling hunk Walter Matthau) would have reduced a less accomplished director to contemplate a long walk off a short plank. In such ignoble company, 1990's workmanlike, made-for-cable version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island emerges as a near-classic.

But just when you thought the pirate genre had reached its nadir, along comes the ultimate bottom feeder, Cutthroat Island. This piece of self-indulgence cost about half as much to make as this past summer's much-maligned Waterworld, but it may prove an even bigger bomb than that soggy seafaring dud. What were Geena Davis (Cutthroat's star) and Renny Harlin (Mr. Geena Davis, and the film's director) thinking? Could they have latched onto this leaky vessel as a way of tricking some unsuspecting movie studio into footing the bill for an exotic honeymoon?

From its opening scene this ludicrous project inspires fits of derisive laughter. The level of incompetence staggers the imagination; in terms of adventure, romance, excitement, style, wit, and fun, this Island is completely deserted. Michael Douglas, who was originally cast as Davis's on-screen love interest, abandoned ship when the cozy star-director couple diminished his role and augmented Davis's. Douglas has made some prescient career moves in recent years, but none better than bailing out of this disaster. After every remotely viable Hollywood leading man from Ralph Fiennes to Charlie Sheen turned down the film's producers, desperate-for-a-hit Matthew Modine finally accepted. He will live to rue the decision. Nobody involved with this buccaneer buffoonery emerges unscathed.

Davis plays a seventeenth-century swordswoman who takes over her father's pirate ship upon his death, and then sets sail for the island of the title, where Papa stashed the loot he accumulated over the years. Laughably miscast, the toothsome tower wields a cutlass about as expertly as Michael Dukakis commanded a tank. Davis's character must outmaneuver her ruthless pirate uncle (campily overplayed by a growling Frank Langella, who appears to realize what a shipwreck of a movie he's in and treats his role with appropriate disdain) and a foppish British colonial governor, both of whom have their own designs on the booty. Enter Matthew Modine's opportunistic rogue to provide Davis's character some company. Modine appears lost throughout; perhaps he's wondering what happened to the balance of his part.

Director Harlin displays a numbing lack of originality. No pirate cliche escapes this floating fiasco, from eye patches and plank walks to peg legs and sword fights. Davis carries a cute, perspicacious little monkey on her shoulder instead of the traditional parrot, and that's the closest this film comes to breaking with custom. Well, okay, you don't see many female pirate captains. But Davis is so wrong for the part that the novelty of a lady leading a shipful of bloodthirsty scalawags is wasted; the perpetually grinning actress infuses her character with all the gravity and depth of a bimbo in a beer commercial.

A lightweight actress miscast in a part that was badly written to begin with is not exactly a foolproof recipe for motion picture success. With no wind in its sails and the cumbersome ballast of its star's and director's vanity and ego weighing it down, this tub quickly submerges and sinks to where it belongs: in Davy Jones's locker.

Cutthroat Island.
Written by Robert King and Marc Norman; directed by Renny Harlin; with Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, and Frank Langella.