Cutthroat Island: Surprisingly Okay Pirate Film

Stupid article title aside, I spent my previous Tuesday evening this week actually watching Cutthroat Island, the notoriously bad pirate movie from 1995 that heavily injured both Geena Davis and Matthew Modine… ‘s careers for a good long two decades, bankrupted a movie studio, and lost 100 million dollars.

So anyway, I came away liking it quite a bit.

After emerging from the Facebook Messenger of Rage (TM) having just bitched with Jessica aka Angriest Fangirl There Is about Agents of SHIELD like every other week, we (or rather I) talked also about the film. It occurred to me then that many of our generation, those lazy post-1990 born millennial-hipster-commies, have never even seen the film. We were, however, regaled with tales of its awfulness and a steady stream of Hollywood blockbusters getting worse and worse over the past decade, while the genre output of those films steadily shrank down to scifi, fantasy, superheroes, scifi superheroes, fantasy superheroes and science fantasy superheroes. You get the idea. This past ten years also saw the rise, fall, and further fall of Pirates of the Caribbean, a once popular series of swashbuckling pirate movies where only the first one was good.

Cutthroat Island is far from being as good as Pirates of the Caribbean 1. That came at a time just a few years after Cutthroat, looked much better, had better effects, and a once in a lifetime performance by Johnny Depp to elevate what would have been another Cutthroat Island come to think of it now.

In retrospect, watching this film in a post-Pirates era, makes it quite easy to see how a few tweaks to Cutthroat could have elevated it up to that level. It needed a bit more polish all around, a bit more focus, maybe twenty minutes trimmed. It looks ten years older than it should, and yet Geena Davis’ surprisingly good turn as a swashbuckling pirate captain kinda made the movie for me. It’s a role that actresses to this day would kill for, which speaks volumes more about the industry today than about the quality of the film, but still. 

Cutthroat Island’s biggest problem is that it can’t keep up the good pacing and tempo until the very end. It kinda runs out of steam twenty minutes before the finale, which really isn’t good. The second half could easily stand some trimming, and the romance between Davis’ character and Modine’s is basic at best. And yet it kinda works. I keep coming back to that point, but it needs repeating: the movie is pretty good. It’s fun, entertaining, Geena Davis and Matthew Modine, when not trying to force a romance, make for a great duo that I would have loved to see more off.

Geena Davis’ pirate captain makes for a good protagonist too. One that lacks a certain amount of motivations, as many critics at the time bemoaned, but I never see that really brought up for her male counterparts. What really has Jack Sparrow’s motivation been for the past five million movies? Revenge and gold. Same here. They’re pirates, that kinda goes with the territory. It’s sad that there are so few female action roles out there that everyone needs to be put on a pedestal and make up for in quality what they cannot make up for in quantity.

So while the movie certainly suffers from structural and cinematographic problems, I believe we have another case on our hands of a film that has been built up for so long as one of the worst movies ever that it cannot hold up to that title. Especially looking back it’s quite interesting to see some elements in which it is still ground-breaking with a leading action heroine that gets to save the day all on her own, something even Sarah Connor didn’t get to do, and some ways in which it took Pirates from barely a decade later to fix the pacing problems. It deserves some re-evaluation for sure.

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Author: Alex

Full time student, part time "writer" of things.

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