If you’re Renny Harlin, the problem with being married to Geena Davis is that she might suggest you direct a pirate movie starring her as the lead pirate. If you’re Geena Davis, the problem with being married to Renny Harlin is that he will go along with whatever stupid idea you give him.
And so here is “Cutthroat Island,” an honest-to-goodness pirate movie, made at a time when pirate movies were not cool. They are cool now, of course, because they focus on Johnny Depp playing a slightly drunken version of Johnny Depp, and that is what audiences crave. But in 1995, there hadn’t been a successful pirate movie in ages. Everyone knew it was folly for Harlin and Davis to spend $100 million making one, and yet that is exactly what they did, because they were two crazy kids in love. Three years later, they stopped being in love and got divorced, but I don’t know who got custody of Cutthroat Island.
We spot our first major sign of trouble in the opening credits, where it is revealed that two men wrote the screenplay but four entirely different men conceived the story. We are skeptical that the story could be so complex, so multilayered, or so brilliant as to require the imaginations of four people. And then, what, they were so exhausted from their story-conceiving that they had to hand the actual scriptwriting over to somebody else? Again, we are skeptical. It only took two dudes to write Memento, and that movie is super-complicated.
But whatever. Geena Davis plays Morgan Adams, a lady pirate working the Caribbean in the 1600s. She is very progressive for her time! Why, women weren’t even allowed to be actresses in the 1600s, a fact that really comes through in Davis’ performance. “I will fly his bloody head as my banner!” is an example of the absurd and vaguely awkward things that she declares unconvincingly in this movie. Another thing she has to say, with regard to her strategy of smashing the bad guy’s boat and taking his treasure: “We’re going to blow out his bottom and get what we came for!” Yes, dear, you do that.
Morgan Adams the lady pirate comes from a family of pirates — and she has the booty to prove it!! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!! No really, her pirate grandfather buried some treasure on an island, as was all the rage among pirates at the time, and left a map of its location so that his heirs could get it. He then divided the map into three parts and gave one to each of his three pirate sons. It did not occur to Grandpa Pirate that his pirate sons, who rob and murder for a living, might rob and murder each other in order to procure the other parts of the map. Yet that is what happens. Grandpa Pirate looks on in disappointment from the afterlife.
Morgan’s dad, Black Harry (Harris Yulin), is the good kind of pirate, i.e., the kind that doesn’t rape or kill onscreen. Her uncle Mordecai (George Murcell) is likewise upstanding and decent, as pirates go. But creepy old uncle Douglas “Dawg” Adams (Frank Langella) is another story! Uncle Dawg the pirate may be a pirate, but he’s also a dog, and probably not a very good uncle, either. He kills Black Harry and Mordecai in order to get their maps, yet somehow fails to get their maps, which suggests he’s also not much of a pirate. Doesn’t really have the arms for the sleeveless vest he wears, either. He’s kind of a washout all the way around.
Anyway, Morgan declares herself captain of her dead father’s ship and sets out to find Cutthroat Island based on the one part of the map she has. Meanwhile, there are shenanigans afoot in the British colonial city of Port Royal, Jamaica! A cad named William Shaw (Matthew Modine) goes to a fancy party dressed as a nobleman, charms the ladies with his naughty double entendres, then steals their jewelry. We don’t know why the movie is showing us this grating and unfunny sequence until we realize it’s Matthew Modine and he’s the second lead in the film, and oh, geez, this is going to be our dashing-rogue anti-hero, isn’t it? Ugh.
Sure enough, he’s caught by the royal officers and put up for auction as a slave, then purchased by lady pirate Morgan because her part of the map is written in Latin, and she heard Shaw can read Latin. (In the old days, you see, when they auctioned off slaves, they also published the slaves’ résumés.) All this means Morgan and Shaw will have to be traveling companions and speak to each other in ribald innuendo and get on each other’s nerves and finally fall in love. But if all she needs him for is to read the Latin, why not make him translate the map right now and then get rid of him? I mean, when I look up a word in the dictionary, I don’t carry the dictionary around with me the rest of the day. Hit it and quit it, pirate lady. Hit it and quit it.
So now Morgan the lady pirate, Shaw her Latin-speaking slave, and their crew are racing against Uncle Pirate Dawg to find Cutthroat Island and the treasure, while both parties are pursued by the royal British anti-piracy brigade, who are approximately as fearsome as you would expect a group of men wearing satin pantaloons to be. Oh, and of course Morgan has a pet monkey, and of course it’s one of those damn pirate monkeys that can load a gun, steal documents, and carry out elaborate plans. Frequently the movie cuts a shot of the monkey so we can see the monkey’s reaction to whatever has just happened, which is the movie’s ways of saying, “Yeah, we got nothin’.”
It becomes increasingly clear that it would not take four people to come up with this story. It wouldn’t even take one person to come up with this story. This story could come up with itself. It’s just a collection of generic pirate-y things like sword fights and cannonballs and guys swinging from ropes. When you buy screenplay-writing software and set the genre to “Pirates,” this script comes up as the template.
What makes “Cutthroat Island” very special is that it is unceasingly loud, chaotic, and frantic. It is the movie equivalent of a guy who corners you at a party and figures he can’t be boring you because, after all, he is shouting at you. Geena Davis and Matthew Modine appear to be having fun, though, and while they don’t have any romantic chemistry, at least they are constantly behaving as if they did. We can take some solace in knowing that whatever led to the dissolution of Davis and Harlin’s marriage, it definitely wasn’t because Harlin was jealous of Modine. They probably got divorced after making “Cutthroat Island” for the same reason couples often split up after their kid commits a heinous crime. Who can maintain a relationship after creating something so hideous?