It shouldn’t be surprising that movie stars are not immune from big-screen dreams of their own, but who would have guessed that Geena Davis harbored a secret desire to be Errol Flynn?
Yet, here she is in “Cutthroat Island,” sword-fighting, head-butting, groin-kicking and leaping around with a knife in her mouth. As Morgan Adams, “the notorious lady pirate” and scourge of the 17th century Caribbean, Davis seems to be having quite a good time, even if she does have to say lines like “Dawg will pay for this, I swear.”
But though audiences may be pleased that Davis is enjoying herself, the more pertinent question is what’s in it for the rest of us, and the answer is not encouraging. Stitched together by six writers and directed by Renny Harlin, “Cutthroat Island” is a bloated, jokey production whose motto, no doubt tattooed on the back of some poor assistant director’s neck, could well be, “When in doubt, blow something up.”
Costing untold millions of dollars, “Cutthroat” is filled with elaborate stunts and fiery explosions. Hordes of carpenters, welders, sandblasters and other minions combined to create enough on-screen chaos to topple the government of a banana republic. Full-size ships, impressive waves, thousands of costumes accurate down to the shoelaces, anything and everything an unreasonable amount of money could buy has been press-ganged into service here.
But what no one seems to have remembered is that the great buccaneer movies, from Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in “The Black Pirate” to Flynn in “Captain Blood” to Burt Lancaster in “The Crimson Pirate,” managed to forge a human connection between the audience and the action, something that this production has no idea how to do.
It’s tempting but probably wrong to fault Harlin, Davis’ husband and “Cutthroat’s” director, for this lack. One peek at his filmography, which includes “Cliffhanger” and “Die Hard 2,” shows that his reputation as a shooter, someone who just wants to put the action on the screen, is well-founded. Let the overpaid writers worry about the dialogue and characterization, I’m busy setting up my Technocrane.
What those writers have come up with is a weary rehash of every pirate movie under the sun, complete with uninspired “take him away and hang him” dialogue and all manner of venerable brigand paraphernalia, including guys with peg legs, guys with tattoos and a passel of cute monkey tricks.
Davis’ Morgan Adams is the daughter of Black Harry and the granddaughter of a rather devilish pirate who captured and hid an enormous treasure and then divided the map showing the way among his three sons. Not only is Morgan eager to collect the pieces, so is Morgan’s notorious uncle Dawg (Frank Langella), a particularly ruthless brigand with a blade serrated like a Sizzler steak knife.
Dragooned into service as a nonthreatening leading man who wouldn’t overshadow Davis is Matthew Modine, who after “Wind” should have known better than to take any part that took him near the water. He plays Will Smith, a cheeky thief and liar whom Morgan buys at a slave market, a purchase she, though perhaps not the rest of us, eventually considers money well spent.
As for Davis, it’s enough to say that she did not become a star by taking on roles that require her to throw as many punches as Jake LaMotta. If this picture gets her Errol Flynn obsession out of her system, we’ll all be better off.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some brief strong pirate action/violence and brief sensuality. Times guidelines: tame sexual innuendoes and multiple explosions.
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Geena Davis: Morgan
Matthew Modine: Shaw
Frank Langella: Dawg
Maury Chaykin: John Reed
Patrick Malahide: Ainslee
Stan Shaw: Glasspoole
Rex Linn: Mr. Blair
Mario Kassar presents a Carolco/Forge production in association with Laurence Mark Productions and Beckner/Gorman Productions, released by MGM. Director Renny Harlin. Producers Laurence Mark, James Gorman. Executive producer Mario Kassar. Screenplay Robert King and Marc Norman, story by Michael Frost Beckner & James Gorman and Bruce A. Evans & Raymond Gideon. Cinematographer Peter Levy. Editors Frank J. Urioste, Ralph E. Winters. Costumes Enrico Sabbatini. Music John Debney. Production design Norman Garwood. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.