Cutthroat Island
directed by Renny Harlin
(MGM, 1995)

OK, I wouldn't have pictured Geena Davis as an action hero, either. And I didn't go to see her action debut when Cutthroat Island was still on the big screen -- but I really wish I had. It's a pirate flick in the finest tradition, full of fighting and brawling, swords and cannons, huge-masted sailing ships and gorgeous ocean vistas, plenty of rum and lots of treasure.

It also has one of the best pirate villains ever. Played by Frank Langella, the evil captain Dawg Brown radiates power, greed and a complete disregard for human life -- caring little even for the lives of his brothers or niece. I'd only seen Langella before in the role of the self-serving Secretary of State in the Kevin Kline movie Dave, so seeing the calculating politician in his three-piece suits transformed into a snarling, bare-chested buccaneer was a shocker. But damn, with less charismatic stars, Langella could easily have owned this film.

But he's crossing swords with Geena Davis, and she, too, makes a smooth transition from more sedate roles in A League of Their Own, Thelma & Louise and Beetlejuice with astonishing grace. I was even more surprised to hear she did all of her own stunts -- as pirate captain Morgan Adams, Davis is constantly involved in some sort of perilous action, from her diving attack from horseback in the opening reel to a well-choreographed climactic duel in the midst of an all-out battle at sea.

So how did this movie earn a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest movie loss to date?

Beats me. Perhaps we can blame the marketing department -- someone obviously fell down on the job. Cutthroat Island deserved to be seen on the big screen but, thankfully, it is at least gaining new fans as something of a cult classic in video form.

The plot is simple, as pirate plots tend to be. Morgan has her late father's piece of the treasure map. Dawg Brown has another, stolen from a now-deceased brother. Another brother has the third and final piece, and Morgan and Dawg are racing to get it.

Seeking to translate some arcane writing on her fragment, Morgan gains the services of wily slave William Shaw (Matthew Modine), who adds dashing wit to the mix of personalities. Modine is also no action hero, but it works well because he's not meant to be one in the story, either. (One must wonder how the original script, with Michael Douglas filling Shaw's role, must have read.)

Morgan destroys two Jamaican towns before the action even gets rolling. Then she's aboard The Morning Star and Dawg's on The Reaper, and the sea race is on.

The film benefits from a good cast all around. Besides the blatant evil of Dawg Brown, there's the quiet malice of the foppish Gov. Ainslee (Patrick Malahide) and the bumbling Lt. Trotter (Angus Wright). Davis's ship is manned by the likes of the loyal Glasspoole (Stan Shaw) and Blair (Rex Linn) and the plotting Scully (Jimmie F. Skaggs), who was obviously earmarked as the villain in the never-made sequel. Writer John Reed (Maury Chaykin) adds humor and more.

Dramatic camera angles and a rousing soundtrack by John Debney (performed by the London Symphony Orchestra) is icing on the cake. And the cast largely musters up convincing period accents; Davis (unlike Kevin Costner's half-hearted efforts in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) doesn't bother.

But that's a small failing in an otherwise smashing film. If you take any pleasure in rousing, swashbuckling action, rent or buy a copy of Cutthroat Island today.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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