Cutthroat Island

Dir: Renny Harlin, 1995. Starring: Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, Frank Langella, Patrick Malahide. English. Action.
Cutthroat Island

After the current vogue for having famous people play eminent people has lost its cachet among Oscar voters, what roles will we remember the nominees for? From 1929 to1942, six of the thirteen Academy Awards for Best Actor were awarded to actors playing real historical personages, from Henry VIII to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” songwriter George M. Cohan. Occasionally flaring up once every decade, the trend of remunerating actors for successful impersonations had almost gone into remission until recently. In 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006 the statue was awarded for the most uncanny imitation of a deceased celebrity. In the Best Actress category the statistics are even more consistent; during the 2000s only two of the past awards have gone to actresses playing fictional characters. This year celebrated stage actor Frank Langella is nominated for portraying Richard Nixon in Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of the play Frost/Nixon. Considering Howard is the first filmmaker to perfect a “direct-by-numbers” technique, the likelihood of the red-headed former star of Happy Days walking away with a little gold man looks likely.

Before Langella was Tricky Dick, he sailed the West Indies as the ruthless pirate Dawg Brown in the 1995 action swashbuckler Cutthroat Island. Dawg’s corsair father leaves Dawg and his brothers a massive hidden treasure as their patrimony, but divides the map to the loot amongst his sons to insure the fair division of the horde. But avaricious Dawg seeks to deprive his brothers of their inheritance and he urges his brother Harry to hand over his map or walk the plank. Harry dies, but not before passing on his map (hidden in a brainy location) to his voluptuous daughter Morgan Adams (Geena Davis). Morgan takes her father’s place as captain of his galleon, although most of the crew is skeptical of her competence. To gain their trust she promises them an equal share of the treasure. Unfortunately, Morgan’s section of the map is in Latin, forcing her to go ashore in Jamaica where she is a wanted woman. On land she finds a dashing con artist (Matthew Modine) who can read the map, but might also steal her heart. Together they try to escape the forces of Dawg and the larcenous Royal Navy conspiring against them to steal their treasure.

Directed by Finnish action auteur Renny Harlin, purveyor of exploding cinema such as Cliffhanger and Die Harder, Cutthroat Island was intended by Harlin to bestow action superstar status on his then girlfriend, Davis. Instead the film was one of the biggest bombs of the nineties and pirate films attained unbankable status, until of course some producers decided that one based on an amusement park ride might have the artistic credibility to lure back an audience. Although, the story is unremarkable, Cutthroat Island is full of charming performances and spectacular stunts. Matthew Modine channels Errol Flynn effortlessly in his role of “Pirate Joker” (har-har-har) and Frank Langella brings depth to what with a lesser actor would be a two-dimensional villain. John Debney provides a lush, romantic score that complements Harlin’s feats of derring-do and thundering pirate ship battles. The escapist milieu of gorgeous island vistas and innumerable combustions (including an old-world pirate bazooka) make two hours simply dissolve.

There are stories of real people as compelling as any that can be concocted from imagination. But the current regressive trend of handing out Oscars to biopics is one that will have consequences. George C. Scott twice refused the Oscar for Best Actor, calling the ceremony’s enforced competition amongst nominees “a goddamn meat parade.” Nevertheless, the Academy Awards has clout and the potential to increase DVD sales and overseas box office grosses. Actors eager for the commensurate salary increases that Oscars deliver, or the honor associated with receiving one will be more eager to act in biopic movies in the future, and the pictures that can get major actors attached to them the easiest are the ones to get made. The last time audiences saw this many biopics receiving so much critical approbation America was experiencing the Great Depression, and currently we’re in an economic crisis of a similar magnitude. Audiences seem to be afraid of fiction, associating it with the flights of fancy from financial reality that placed us in our present painful situation. But it wasn’t movies that lost our houses and our jobs. It was deregulation, speculation, and consumer’s voracious appetites for goods they couldn’t afford that advertising encouraged them they were entitled to. We need to make up stories now more than ever. Only human innovation and creativity can release us from not only the boom-bust cycle, but imminent environmental collapse as well. That means more of the original storytelling and explosive wit of Cutthroat Island and less of actors in prosthetics.

Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Feb 17, 2009 11:19am
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