In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “So by the numbers and standard, I have no idea why average, easily pleased audiences didn’t take to its grandeur and spectacle.”
“Congratulations, madam. There’s another town you’ve destroyed.”
In the late 80s and early 90s, Geena Davis made enduring cult favourites like The Fly, generation definers like Beetlejuice and massive blockbusters like Thelma and Louise. After a pretty great run, she was in the position that very few actresses have ever been in. She was a big enough name to headline a big budget, action adventure movie. Even today, Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games is more of an exception to that the rule when it comes to where Hollywood invests their big budget dollar. Unfortunately, when Davis got the chance, she wasn’t offered anything as culturally hot as an adaptation of a massive selling YA series of novels. She was offered a genre that was all but dead at the time, and she made what is still officially the biggest financial disaster in movie history, Cutthroat Island.
A formidable pirate bucking the trends of what it meant to be a woman in those days, Morgan (Davis) is making it as a woman in man’s world. Before the opening credits have even played out, she’s bested one man intellectually and another physically. This isn’t about her proving herself as an equal, this woman is already an undisputed equal in this world. Returning to her father (Harris Yulin as Black Harry), Morgan finds him about to be killed by his own brother and rival pirate, Dawg (Frank Langella).
It turns out, years ago, Morgan’s grandfather stole a Spanish ship full of gold, and now, his three sons each have a section of the map to the gold’s whereabouts. Morgan helps her father escape, but not before he is mortally wounded. Asking her to shave his head before he dies, Morgan finds her father’s portion of the map tattooed to his scalp. Commandeering his ship and leading his crew, she heads off to find the third brother (George Murcell as Mordachai), who she hopes will be an ally against Dawg. She also goes in search of someone who can translate the Latin on her father’s map, finding Matthew Modine’s Shaw, a conman about to be sold into slavery after his latest arrest.
First of all, I have no idea why Cutthroat Island is the biggest financial disaster in movie history. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not good and I in no way enjoyed it. But it’s so by the numbers and standard, that I have no idea why average, easily pleased audiences didn’t take to its grandeur and spectacle. On a technical level, director Renny Harlin made a more than competent blockbuster. Davis and Modine are both fun in the lead roles when it comes to the action, and their chemistry is more than strong enough to carry the standard issue romance angle.
What I’m getting at is, there’s nothing creatively ambitious enough about Cutthroat Island to make it in any way challenging or risky. It ticks so many standard, crowd pleasing boxes, I really am surprised that casual movie crowds weren’t pleased. But I guess, in the end, it comes down to budget. While a $100million budget isn’t uncommon today, it’s still on the high end of things. $100million in 1995 must have been a monumental budget and a monumental risk. So even if it had been a hit, making its money back would have been difficult.
If this movie was rereleased today, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it did well. Geena Davis and Matthew Modine have been out of the loop long enough for people in their 20s and below to have no idea who they are. On a technical level, it still looks pretty good and high end, and it’s in no way worse than money spinners like the Transformers franchise. I have to wonder, were standards higher in 1995?