During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Carolco Pictures reigned supreme with their stable of franchises (the “Rambo” series), action blockbusters (“Total Recall,” “Terminator 2,” “Cliffhanger”), and provocative thrillers (“Basic Instinct,” “Jacob’s Ladder”). And then 1995 hit them square in the jaw, due the embarrassment of “Showgirls” and the massive financial misery that emerged from record-setting box office failure of the pirate epic, “Cutthroat Island.” Much has been written and vocalized about this notorious bomb, but cleave away all the rancid press and Hollywood gossip, and there’s a rip-roaring adventure film in there somewhere that will do just about anything to please its audience.
Morgan Adams (Geena Davis) is a pirate scouring the seas to find the remaining two pieces of a treasure map that will lead to untold riches on the hidden paradise of Cutthroat Island. On her tail is Dawg Brown (Frank Langella), a nefarious scallywag who wants the treasure for himself. Looking for help to decode the map, Morgan seeks out the expertise of scoundrel William Shaw (Matthew Modine), but finds herself unsure of his loyalties. With the Royal Navy on the hunt for pirates, Morgan and William face endless barriers on their way to the fortune, forced to trust each other as Dawg maneuvers his crew of buccaneers to the island to take the prize for themselves, killing anything in their way.
It’s easy to hate the idea of “Island,” with its astonishing, irresponsible budget, flagrant miscasting abuses, and explode-a-minute action pacing. It’s the last of the 80’s trend of coke-snorting, top-heavy, extravagant filmmaking endeavors; a film so assured of its appeal, it willingly careens out of control as much as it can just to say that it could. The world was rooting against the movie in 1995, but revisiting the picture today left me with same impression I held 14 years ago: look beyond the excess and there’s a striking pirate adventure with plenty of premium screen elements to savor.
While a low-grade technician of repeated disappointment these days, director Renny Harlin was at the top of his game with “Island,” and that blockbuster bravado shimmers through every last frame. Eager to entertain, Harlin approaches this film like his own private theme park stunt show, pushing Davis and Modine through a series of action set-pieces that have the actors flipping around locations, spinning with swords, and dodging a swarm of fireballs. It’s a spirited directorial effort from Harlin, who clearly adores the yar-matey tenets of pirate life, griming up the film with a grotesque assortment of unwashed, amoral men, making Davis’s puffed porcelain features stand out even more.
Handed the island of Malta (along with parts of Thailand) and basically a blank check to take his imagination anywhere, Harlin welcomed the challenge, presenting an impressive visual ballet of sun-kissed environments and lavishly detailed set design. “Island” doesn’t take the cheap way out, and every budgetary dime appears to be in place for Harlin to cover with his multiple cameras. This is vast production, but rarely bloated, holding close to the treasure hunt plot while Harlin plans his visual attacks. With incredible stunt work, luscious widescreen photography (from Peter Levy), and backed by one of the finest musical scores of the 1990s (courtesy of John Debney, who knocks it out of the park here), “Island” is an engaging, seemingly infinite, broadly staged statement of soaring matinee spirit, with Harlin the ideal candy man dishing up the cinematic gusto.
But does the picture have problems? Absolutely. With so much money burned to bejewel the frame with every possible pirate embellishment, it makes little sense that Davis, Modine, and Langella were permitted to take their respective roles all the way to completion. Was nobody paying attention? Rarely has there been a film as miscast as this: Davis mangles every single line reading (her physicality remains a proper Anne Bonny fit); Modine is lost as the damsel in distress, though he’s the only actor to properly capture the winky bite of the screenplay; and Langella just looks silly parading around as a high-seas bad ass, mowing down dissenters left and right, straining to growl through his bedtime story vocal limitations. The acting is hardly the focus of “Island,” but it’s difficult to ignore the casting errors as the film becomes more reliant on the talent in the second act cool down, where the explosions take a smoke break and Harlin suddenly realizes there should be more to the material than unrelenting pace.
It’s difficult to rag on Harlin and Davis for “Island” when their collaborative efforts gave birth to the masterful “Long Kiss Goodnight” in 1996, but their maiden voyage as a screen team is riddled with cringe-inducing mistakes. Not blunders the size of the two “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels mind you, but enough to remind the viewer that Harlin and Davis were a married couple at the time, leaving any candid on-set assessment of performance a pipe dream.
Finally making its debut on BD, the AVC encoded image on “Cutthroat Island” (2.40:1 aspect ratio) is actually quite lovely, with generous tropical pop, strong color representation, and minimal DNR troubles. While the quality slightly ranges from scene to scene (effect sequences are noticeably less detailed and somewhat murky), the overall event is surprisingly full-bodied for what has become a shameful motion picture -- certainly the best the film has ever looked outside of its theatrical presentation.
The DTS HD 7.1 sound design is as big and boomy as the film, taking great delight surrounding the listener in absolute chaos. Strong dimensional work throughout the picture offers vivid low-end punch, yet the dialogue (most, if not all of it, looped) is easily understood. Gunshots, sword clanks, and explosions are the main course here, and the track keeps the chaos wonderfully contained, getting into the spirit of the film through a crisp, pulsating reproduction. As for the aforementioned score? Do me a personal favor and crank the opening titles all the way up. The sheer sonic force is to die for. A French mix is also available.
English SDH, English, and Spanish subtitles are included.
A feature-length audio commentary with director Renny Harlin answers many questions about the making of the film. If you’ve sat through one of Harlin’s chats before, “Island” is more of the same: concise technical details, a dry sense of humor, and a sizable portion of honesty about the final product. With “Island,” Harlin does speak about the film’s trouble release and venomous reception, but he never trashes the work, valuing the educational experience and the opportunity to plaster the screen with all of his pirate fantasies. Harlin always delivers in the commentary arena, and his talk here sheds new light on the film and its extensive, problematic production journey.
“Featurette” (6:08, 480p) is a promotional piece from the 1995 EPK. While containing tantalizing glimpses of life on the “Island” set, the mini-doc doesn’t offer much in the way of depth.
And the film’s marvelous Teaser Trailer and Theatrical Trailer (both 480p) are included.
For the grand finale, Harlin rolls out his “Sea Hawk” influences for a hilariously explosive finale, where Dawg and Morgan go ship-to-ship for control of the water. Again, Harlin shows little restraint, but by now the sheer excess of the film has become its greatest asset, plunging the whole endeavor agreeably over the falls. “Island” has assumed a dark place in Hollywood history, and while I can’t argue the miserable numbers (truth be told: the film never received an honest theatrical shot), I will certainly celebrate the Herculean effort. “Cutthroat Island” is a one-of-a-kind, full-steam-ahead practical pirate event, and while it’s bolted together with minimal attention to thespian proficiency, it sustains a special rhythm of eye candy and fortitude that makes it an enduring curiosity.