Making the case for Cutthroat Island (1995)

Remember when Pirates Of The Caribbean came out? Did you like it? Did it have swash and buckle and pirate shenanigans aplenty?

Did it also feel like a breath of fresh air in terms of the types of blockbuster movies out there?

For me, it did, particularly coming off the back of the avalanche of ’90s disaster movies. And many others felt the same too, given how popular the Pirates series of movies went on to be – almost rivalling the mighty Fast and Furious franchise. And yet, Pirates Of The Caribbean (2003) wasn’t exactly original. Granted, maybe no one was saying it was, but people did react to it like they weren’t aware of the existence of Cutthroat Island (1995), only eight years earlier.

To be honest, I can’t be too high and mighty about it. I don’t think I was hugely aware of that movie myself. Or if I was, I guess I just dismissed it because I hadn’t heard good things. But then the pandemic came along and I had time, so thought I’d ignore the critics and actually watch it and judge for myself.

And I’m glad I did, because it was fun. Not only does it (mostly) hold up now, but it was also perhaps ahead of its time (which we’ll get into). Plus I’m not the only one that thinks so.

Let’s look at some of the things I enjoyed about it.

Strong female lead

Now before you roll your eyes, this is still a thing that gets said about movies in 2021, like having a ‘strong female lead’ is progressive. Yet in the ’90s Geena Davis gave us two movies where she kicked ass — this one and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). In Cutthroat Island she plays Morgan Adams, the captain of a gang of pirates. They respect her and follow her. She’s a skilled fighter and a decent strategist.

Himbo in distress

Ok, maybe it’s a little harsh to say Matthew Modine’s con artist, William Shaw — as the love interest, of sorts — was a himbo (a male bimbo) in this movie. I remember reading that his character didn’t have that much agency of his own, which is true. But in some ways, all the filmmakers did was flip the gender roles.

Too often, women end up playing the wife, girlfriend or damsel in distress to the male hero. Here, Modine’s Shaw has a few skills, but also needs to be rescued by Morgan more than once. This made for a nice change, and slightly reminded me of Chris Pine’s character in Wonder Woman (2017).

Formidable villain

Geoffrey Rush as Barbosa in the Pirates movies is, arguably, the most important character of that franchise, and gives the most memorable performance — more so than Depp’s Jack Sparrow, I’d argue. Yet before him we had Frank Langella’s Dawg Brown. He was a delight, and there was something simple about his character, in terms of the fact that he just enjoyed being evil, which was refreshing.

In modern blockbusters it’s often the case that bad guys end up with a sympathetic backstory, or their motivation is a noble one, it’s just their methods we question (see: Killmonger in Black Panther and Thanos is Avengers Infinity War). But Langella’s Dawg had none of that. He just liked being bad. I was also reliably informed by my partner that Frank has ‘silver daddy vibes’ in this movie.

Great action

I enjoyed the action scenes in this film, nearly as much as some of the stuff in the first Pirates movie. See the trailer above. Just bear in mind this was ’90s action and effects and had ’90s values, so one or two moments don’t quite hold up. But overall it’s fun.

Director Renny Harlin was nominated for Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director, but lost out to Paul Verhoeven for Showgirls (another film that’s been reappraised over the years). I do think this nomination was a little harsh, and was perhaps given to Harlin due to the movie’s spiralling budget and various casting issues.

Yet I don’t think this is a terrible film. I’d give it 3/5 because, crucially, I was entertained. I enjoyed it and was never bored, and that has to count for something.

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