Cutthroat Island

on December 22, 1995 by Susan Lambert
Producer/director Renny Harlin ("Cliffhanger") should have known he was sunk when the overblown, big-guns trailer for his "Cutthroat Island" was blown out of the water by the clever little Muppets pirate-movie trailer (Buena Vista's "Muppet Treasure Island"). Obviously, these days the old-fashioned pirate movie is a sub-genre submerged under the weight of its replacements: submarine movies and SF films. Anyone who's read C. S. Forrester's "Hornblower" novels knows that "Star Trek" simply relocated the great ship battles, last-minute escapes and conflicted captains from the high seas to the distant stars. Any attempt at straight-forward swashbuckling requires fresh ideas and a light touch; unfortunately, Carolco--itself now sunk--was known for neither. In cahoots with Harlin and MGM, Carolco has made yet another of their huge monstrosities of a motion picture, and it's way too heavy to stay afloat for very long.
   At first glance, a female pirate movie seems a perfectly good idea, especially with the unique presence of Geena Davis. She brings a beautiful physicality to the role; lanky, swashbuckling, two-bit thief Shaw (Matthew Modine) leagues with her to beat her evil uncle Dawg (Frank Lan-gella) to the proverbial hidden treasure. Along the way, they face count-less gun battles, fistfights and fireballs. Modine is an unexpected pleasure, dashingly acceptable in his dog-eared role. He and Davis attempt to rise above their pedestrian and clumsy scenes together, but it's best when they just shut up and jump off something. It's a spectacular treat to see Davis' angular body find a new life in its athletic prowess. When she opens her mouth to bark commands or spout droll expressions, though, she seems uncomfortable and self-conscious.
   At a full two hours, this bloated "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride is emotionally empty and loaded with action more chaotic than choreographic. Har-lin has created an expensive, energetic flop that (like its futuristic counterpart, "Waterworld") seems valuable only as an amusement park stunt-show commercial. Much of the $100 million budget is onscreen in pirate ships, pyrotechnics and production design, but they're anchored among some surprisingly bad blue-screen effects and labored dialogue. Harlin wields his humor with a heavy hand and with "Cutthroat Island" he proves himself again the Grand Master of the foolish Hollywood enclave that believes "more is better." They should all take a lesson from the little green frog who stole their trailer thunder, for that Muppet pirate movie looks like it could be thrice the fun at a third the cost. Starring Geena Davis, Matthew Modine and Frank Langella. Directed by Renny Harlin. Written by Robert King and Marc Norman. Produced by Laurence Mark, Joel B. Michaels, James Gorman and Renny Harlin. An MGM release. Action/adventure. Rated PG-13 for some strong pirate action/violence and brief sensuality. Running time: 120 min.
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