Friday, February 28, 2020

Reserved Seating Presents: The Bomb Squad - CUTTHROAT ISLAND

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who look for buried treasure among box office disasters.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: This week, Reserved Seating is kicking off a new series in which Rob and I finally watch a notorious box office failure that neither of us have seen. We’re starting with a movie I’ve almost seen about a dozen times since its debut 25 years ago: Renny Harlin’s pirate epic Cutthroat Island. The film tells the story of a pirate named Morgan Brown (Geena Davis) who takes over her father’s ship and crew and races to find a bounty of treasure with her nefarious uncle, the evil pirate captain Dawg Brown (Frank Langella), hot on their heels. In tow with Morgan is a thief named William Shaw (Matthew Modine), who acts as comedic foil, love interest, and reluctant hero. Cutthroat Island was budgeted between $98M and $115M and grossed only $10M in the US overall, making it one of the biggest box office bombs of all time. It was also known for its collaboration between Harlin and Davis, who were a couple at the time. This was the first of two projects for the duo, with their next being the more successful (and imho pretty fun) The Long Kiss Goodnight.

I’m glad I waited to see Cutthroat Island. If I watched it in 1995, I probably would have been bored by it since I didn’t have much familiarity with the tropes of pirate films. In 2020, many Pirates of the Caribbean films later, I knew better what to expect and enjoyed Cutthroat Island as an entertaining example of the swashbuckling epic it is. The production design, sets, and costumes look detailed and expensive (they spared no expense/the money is on the screen) and the pacing is pretty good along the way, with enough standout action set pieces to keep me happy. If you like movie explosions, Cutthroat Island also delivers the goods. Harlin is a very capable action director and he’s made a perfect B-picture for a double feature with Waterworld. The biggest drawback for me with Cutthroat Island is also one of its charms: the performances don’t entirely work. I love Geena Davis (she’s Dottie Henson!) and I think she handles herself great in the physicality of the performance, but her line deliveries feel tentative for a leader and pirate captain. Matthew Modine is doing something. Patrick and I were talking about him on the podcast last week and our comments hold especially true in light of Cutthroat Island - what is it about him that made him a lead for a time? Many of his line deliveries feel ADR’d or anachronistic with the time period. It’s a fascinating, weird performance. Frank Langella fares best as the big bad because he’s a quality ham when allowed to go over the top.

What did you think of Cutthroat Island? Did it ever have a chance of being successful at the box office? It opened in 13th place in a crowded Christmas 1995 marketplace. I remember in the Chicago-area it went from the first-run to dollar shows in three weeks, which was so fast it’s almost sexy.
Rob: I’m glad you enjoyed Cutthroat Island, because I honestly found it a chore to get through. And due respect to what you said about the comfortable pirate movie tropes — a stance I agree with, to an extent — but I couldn’t help but be reminded of the old George Carlin bit about blues music: It’s not enough to play the notes; you have to know why they need to be played in the first place. Cutthroat Island lacks any real mischievous spirit. It feels stagey and dishonest, as if everyone has good intentions without really knowing where to stand on a pirate ship or what a real pirate would do with their hands. It understands pirate movies from a distance, but it doesn’t play the notes with any soul. I hate being down on this one, though, because it does have that earnest ‘90s adventure movie tone that we’ve all lamented the absence of in current blockbusters (most 21st century adventure movies are postmodern deconstructions laced with self-aware metacommentary). So even if it’s mostly a slog with awkward lip service to a gender role inversion it has no real interest in exploring, I at least appreciated that Cutthroat Island had its heart in the right place.

Adam: That’s one thing I liked about Geena Davis’s casting, which is how little lip service they paid to it. For me, it’s always so much better when a movie just makes a decision to cast a female actor as the action lead and doesn’t treat them any better or worse than a male actor in the same role. I don’t think Davis or Harlin are asking for any extra credit for this casting decision. They both know she can do it, so why make a big deal about it? It’s similar to Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

Rob: That’s fair! I only drew attention to it because the character’s gender was presented as an obstacle early on. But please, PLEASE can we talk about the eternal monument to white male mediocrity that is Matthew Modine? I mean, Vision Quest, Short Cuts, sure.

Adam: He kills it in Bye Bye Love. Go on...
Rob: Sure. I understand that he had his moment. But am I wrong to suggest that he’s best known as the guy who got a role that should have gone to Anthony Michael Hall? You and I were joking about how he’s stale Dominos to Carey Elwes’ hot Chicago deep dish in this movie, and I can’t think of a better way to illustrate just how fucking magical Elwes’ Princess Bride chemistry with Robin Wright is than by watching Modine futz and stumble around Geena Davis in Cutthroat Island. Davis is doing her level best, of course, and a movie is always going to be better for her presence, but it’s clear that she gets very little out of Modine and could chew him up and spit him out without a second thought. This is a silver screen romance that, at best, results in some bland missionary sex lasting about twenty-five seconds and followed-up by a polite smile and a speedy apology.

Adam: He’s so vanilla that I have circled back around and find him interesting. And yes, Davis would break Modine in half.

Rob: Anyway, if Hollywood lore (i.e. Wikipedia) is accurate, Cutthroat Island was doomed from the start. Production company Carolco was deeply in debt before shooting started (even funneling money away from an unmade Arnold Schwarzennegger vehicle to fill budget gaps) and went out of business before Cutthroat Island even premiered. Director Renny Harlin even paid $1 million out of his own pocket for script rewrites! To be fair, aside from the acting, very little of those external shortcomings are present on the screen. As you said, the production design, set pieces, and stunt work are solid for the period, and the story is about as functional as it really has to be. It’s repetitive as hell (there’s no real plot or character escalation outside of the race for the treasure), but shaving this thing down to about eighty-eight minutes would make it a totally pleasant afternoon diversion.

Adam: Part of my affection for the movie stems from a comment I heard Quentin Tarantino make about it recently. He said that in 1995 you would be like “Yeah, whatever” but in 2020 you’re in awe that people actually built all of this stuff for the movie. The tactileness of the movie won me over pretty early on.

Rob: I can definitely get on board with that stance. Question for you: If you had a treasure map that was cut into three pieces, who would you give the other two pieces to for safekeeping?

Adam: You would get one of the other two pieces because you’re one of my best friends and you live far away so that would throw off Frank Langella. I would give the third to someone in my family, but that would be really difficult to decide who.

Question for you: What do you think first when you hear about a box office bomb? Do you want to distance yourself from it because it has a stink of failure or are you rooting for it like you would a bullied kid on the playground?
Rob: This is a great question, and a strangely difficult one to approach. I started by thinking about the inverse: blockbusters. Most (not all, but most) movies that rake in the dough do so because they achieve a kind of middling excellence — they appeal to just enough different kinds of people in just the right sets of ways. On the other hand, why does a movie bomb? Budgets and release cycles aside, it’s usually because they lack that same appeal. They’re too far in one direction or another. So if all other things are equal, it might be worthwhile to compare the number of box office bombs that are punished for taking chances with the number of box office successes that are rewarded for taking none and see exactly which set yields more memorable results. This is completely subjective and unscientific, and I’m generalizing a whole lot, but I do find myself very curious to see a movie that tanks super hard, almost more curious than I am to see a big hit. Again, this is nothing against blockbusters (I like blockbusters!), but I’m just trying to think it through. I was super defensive of Birds of Prey and even found myself defending Charlie’s Angels (2019) more than I should have, but then again, I had already seen them before the “bomb” had dropped, so to speak. But let me think about some 2019 “bombs” that I haven’t seen: I’ll Redbox Gemini Man, for sure. Cats would be interesting if it hadn’t become a meme before it even came out. I’ll see Richard Jewell after I get through those Cage/Travolta movies you and Patrick recommended last week. So, two out of three?

That was a long road to get to an anticlimactic result: I generally don’t care how well a movie does, but I am interested in sussing out the reasons why one movie fails and another succeeds. That’s kind of what we’ll explore here! You?

Adam: 9 times out of 10, I’m more interested in a movie because it bombed but it can be for a bunch of different reasons. Sometimes it’s just to witness a grand, expensive folly (The Lone Ranger) and other times because it’s a well-meaning underdog (The Majestic). Next week we’ll be back with a very special All Pacino review covering The Godfather Part III in celebration of 2020’s F This Movie Fest week where we celebrate the films of 1990. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.


  1. Oh man, this brought me back to the 90's when Renny was the one and only Finnish guy to make it in Hollywood (still is) and a huge celebrity back home. I remember him and Geena constantly being talked about, and it was front page news whenever they visited Finland. The papers dubbed Geena "Finland's daughter-in-law". Simpler times.

  2. Listen to the main theme/Morgan's ride as loud as you can. Its flawless and makes anything you're doing seem grand.