My Year Of Flops, Extra-Piratey Case File #114: Cutthroat Island

My Year Of Flops, Extra-Piratey Case File #114: Cutthroat Island

When I interviewed Shane Black in 2005, he told this story: "I sold the script [for Long Kiss Goodnight] because Renny Harlin and Geena Davis were available. And the very next day, Renny said, 'Uh, I forgot to tell you something. There's this contractual thing, and I might have to go do another movie first.' And that was Cutthroat Island… one of the biggest bombs of the decade." After Cutthroat Island, Black's thinking apparently went from "Sweet! Renny Harlin and Geena Davis are totally going to make my movie!" to "Oh shit! Renny Harlin and Geena Davis are totally going to make my movie!"

Cutthroat Island was such a disaster that it damaged the careers of people who had nothing to do with it, like Shane Black. It was downright toxic to its principals. It once held the Guinness World Record for biggest box-office flop of all time. Along with Showgirls, it drove its production company, Carolco, out of business. It helped destroy Davis' career as a leading lady, and Matthew Modine's career as a leading man outside the direct-to-video fringe. It made Baby Jesus cry. It caused widows to weep openly in the street. I don't know how, but it's somehow responsible for the AIDS crisis in Africa, global warming, and Dane Cook's popularity. Moviegoers left theaters so angry that many burned Modine in effigy during bloody, fatality-filled riots.

Even more disastrously, it gave me very little to write about. Consequently, this will be one of the shortest My Year Of Flops entries in recent memory. I know I also promised to write about a slew of other pirate movies here, but I simply ran out of time. Maybe I'll discuss the likes of Ice Pirates and Roman Polanski's Pirates in my newly launched My Year Of Flops: Rejected Rejects column.

Davis wracked up an impressive résumé before Cutthroat Island, with roles in hits like The Fly, Beetlejuice, Thelma & Louise, A League Of Their Own, Tootsie, and Fletch. It's telling, however, that those were all movies that Geena Davis appeared in. They weren't Geena Davis movies. Yet Cutthroat Island was unmistakably a Geena Davis vehicle, though it didn't start out that way.

Michael Douglas was reportedly offered $15 million to play the male lead, but he pulled out, claiming that the filmmakers beefed up Davis' role at the expense of his character. In a wholly unrelated development, Davis was shtupping Harlin at the time. The role was consequently offered to more or less every actor in Hollywood, including Keanu Reeves, Tom Cruise, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jeff Bridges, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Keaton, Charlie Sheen, Liam Neeson, and Tim Robbins, all of whom turned it down in spite of being offered ungodly sums of money. You know a film is in trouble when not even a $7 million paycheck can convince Charlie Fucking Sheen to spend a few months waving around a plastic sword right next to the cleavage of Amazonian sex bomb Geena Davis. Can you even imagine how many coked-up lapdances $7 million would buy?

Finally, the filmmakers settled on everyone's 11th-favorite choice, Matthew Modine, who a year earlier, played Jacob of biblical fame in a TNT cable movie. So instead of pairing Davis with one of cinema's biggest stars, the filmmakers were making a $100 million movie with a guy coming off such blockbusters as The Browning Version, Bye Bye Love, and Fluke. Who can forget Fluke? For that matter, who can remember it?

In a textbook case of the tail wagging the dog, producer Mario Kassar started building elaborate sets for the film before the revised first draft of the screenplay was ready. As with so many flops, the script became an afterthought. The question wasn't, "Do we have a story worth telling, populated by characters worth caring about?" but rather, "Man, can you believe how awesome this pirate-ship set looks? The dailies are gonna be off the hook!"

Cutthroat Island casts Davis as the daughter of legendary pirate Harris Yulin. When Yulin is murdered by his nefarious brother (Frank Langella), Davis commandeers dear old dad's pirate ship and sets off in search for hidden treasure. In her mad quest for gold, Davis recruits the services of liar, thief, and conman Modine, who is introduced crashing a high-class party sporting Errol Flynn's rakish beard/mustache combo and Cher's flowing cascades of curly black hair.

After purloining a guest's valuables, he's thrown in prison, where Davis buys him as a slave/Latin interpreter. (The two always go together.) In a gender reversal that's nowhere as interesting or subversive as it should be, Davis is the two-fisted, brawling, swashbuckling lead, and Modine is the dainty blonde, lightweight sidekick, the obligatory love interest, as it were.

Cutthroat Island never gives audiences an opportunity to know these characters before it throws them into one technically impressive but empty, unaffecting setpiece after another, from a mad chase through the crowded streets of the Caribbean to skirmishes with Langella's ship.

Throughout my tortured adolescence, I nursed a schoolgirl crush on Geena Davis, so the prospect of her playing a sexy pirate lady in a sexy-pirate-lady movie filled me with feverish anticipation. Yet her performance is curiously sexless and dour. Then again, even Oscar-winning thespians have trouble breathing life and humor into dialogue like the following:

"I will fly his bloody head as my banner!"

"You're a very beautiful woman. I'd like to wash your feet."

"You like to wash things, do you? Start with your mouth."

[Modine to Davis while they're being chased.] "I'm in favor of exercise, but you owe me an explanation."

[Davis after crashing through a store window.] "I must visit that shop again. When I have more time."

"A ship! I find myself being fired on by an entire ship!"

"Mordechai's up there, scared as a goose. Back to the wall, pistols out."

"Since you lie so easily and since you are so shallow, I shall lie you in a shallow grave."

"Since I am so charitable, I will maroon you on a rock the size of this table, instead of splattering your brains across my bunkhead as you deserve.

"Morgan, in sweet memory of bouncing you on my knee as a little girl, I'm going to ask you just one time for your daddy's map."

"Would you settle for the point of my cutlass?"

With banter that brilliant, is it any wonder Marc Norman, one of a mere six credited screenwriters, won an Academy Award for his very next script, Shakespeare In Love? Nobody expects Oscar-worthy performances in a movie like Cutthroat Island, but the performances here are so wooden, it's as if the entire cast is reading their lines phonetically.

I was tempted to write that the performances are uniformly wooden, but I always try to single out moments of genius in even the most misbegotten boondoggles. So I'd like to give Langella mad props for finding the perfect tone for his role, a slimy, theatrical, lip-smacking old-school villain of the most reptilian sort. In the climactic battle between Langella and Davis' ships, the old pro and venerable heavy single-handedly lifts the whole enterprise out of the muck and into camp heaven for at least a few glorious seconds when he raises his arms in joy and shouts deliriously "I love this! I love it!" At least someone's enjoying himself.

It's hard to write about a pirate movie of relatively recent vintage without comparing it to Pirates Of The Caribbean, the movie that resurrected the genre and inspired a resurgence of interest in all things piratey. The genius of Johnny Depp's deliriously fun performance was that it didn't just wink knowingly at the audience; it staggered up to the audience with rum on its breath, drunkenly threw an arm over its shoulder, and slurred, "I'm just having a laff here, you know? Just a bit of a giggle and a fat paycheck before it's back to art movies and banging Vanessa Paradis." Depp single-handedly transformed what could have been a clattering, soulless contraption (it was a CGI-intensive blockbuster based on a goddamned theme park ride, for Christ's sake) into an agreeably oddball romp through sheer force of personality. That human element is fatally missing from Cutthroat Island.

There's a hint of that cheeky self-mockery in Modine's performance, and loads of it in Langella's gleefully over-the-top turn. Yet Cutthroat Island cries out for a light touch that Davis and Harlin fatally lack. They don't seem to understand that pirate movies should be fun, not a grueling technical exercise. All those fancy helicopter shots, elaborate stunts (many performed by Davis herself), and fussily choreographed swordfights mean nothing if the characters are paper-thin, the plot convoluted, and the one-liners groan-inducing.

Being a fan of pirates and pirate movies (though not a fan of The Pirate Movie), I experienced a childlike surge of excitement over the promise of swashbuckling adventures on the high seas, and all manner of derring-do, during Cutthroat Island's opening credits. Then the film began, and that excitement dissipated, never to return. Cutthroat Island resurrects the moribund pirate movie, just to bury it all over again. It runs the gamut from workmanlike to dull to egregiously awful.

We may not have seen the last of Cutthroat Island, however. According to my spies in the industry, the studio was so disappointed in Harlin's big, dumb take on Cutthroat Island that they recently hired Paul Schrader to shoot an entirely different version of the film that is rumored to be more cerebral and spiritual. Revenge is indeed a dish best served cold.

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure