Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, Frank Langella, Patrick Malahide
Harlin's 1995 epic pirate action movie Cutthroat Island is being
re-released by Momentum Pictures in the wake of the enormous success of
Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean (to be specific, it will
be released the same day as Pirates hits DVD in the UK).
hard to see why Cutthroat Island was not just as successful as Pirates
was eight years later. The film has some impressive sets, and more
luscious location footage (it was
shot in Malta and Thailand, where Danny Boyle shot parts of The
Beach, and where Bond and Scaramanga duelled, in The Man With The
Golden Gun). It also features some spectacular action sequences, which
are generally bigger and more exciting than those in the Disney film. This
isn't terribly surprising: Cutthroat
Island had a hefty $90m budget (in comparison, Pirates of the
Caribbean cost a relatively meagre $125m). Unlike Pirates,
however, Cutthroat Island failed to recoup its budget, grossing
only about $11m before audiences cast it adrift. Harlin, incidentally,
says that the film had a "modest" budget, and, although it
wasn't a hit in the US, it did pretty well in other territories, and on home
video. In fact, the film bankrupted the studio that financed it (Carolco Pictures,
who had recently produced smash hits Terminator 2 and Basic Instinct).
the failure of Cutthroat Island can be laid at the feet of its cast? As good as she
is in the film, Geena Davis' feisty Morgan Adams is no match for Johnny
Depp's glorious, swaggering Captain Jack Sparrow. On the other hand,
Matthew Modine's foppish William Shaw is an acceptable substitute for
Orlando Bloom's one-note hero Will Turner. Maybe audiences simply weren't
comfortable with the idea of a female swashbuckler? Of course, Cutthroat Island doesn't
have the supernatural elements that helped make Pirates of the
Caribbean such a genre-busting hit.
of BBFC regulations, about new versions of a film having to be the same as
previously-released versions if the old version (in this case a VHS
release) is to remain in circulation, Momentum's new DVD version is cut by
more than a minute. The cuts (things like headbutts from the fight
sequences) are handled reasonably well, and wouldn't be noticeable to a
casual viewer, but it's something that sours the
disc, and prevents it from being the definitive presentation. The Region 1
version is uncut, of course, but it isn't anamorphic, and it doesn't have the
bonus materials offered by the Momentum disc. Incidentally, one of the
headbutts cut from the film turns up not only in the disc's Making of...
featurette, but also in the trailer, making a complete mockery of the
BBFC's ridiculous policies.
Special Edition Cutthroat Island DVD has received a new anamorphic
2.38:1 transfer. The
film looks terrific. The cinematography (mostly by Peter Levy, after the
film's original cinematographer broke an ankle a week into production) is
terrific, and the DVD transfer is sharp and remarkably clean. Framing
seems a little tight here and there, but Harlin's constantly-moving camera
probably accounts for that. There are signs of
edge-enhancement here and there (it's especially evident in shots of rigging
contrasting with the sky), and this also occasionally manifests itself in
shimmering diagonal edges (aliasing, in other words). There are also a few
shots where the image isn't as detailed as it could be, probably due to
MPEG compression rather than the fault of over-zealous digital noise
The average bitrate is a very healthy 6.77 Mb/s.
5.1 Dolby Digital audio mix (at 448kbps) is spectacular, with plenty of
atmospheric detail, and lots of carefully-controlled oomph in appropriate
moments. The front soundstage has terrific separation, and the directional
effects are impressive.
film is supported by a very informative commentary track by Director Renny
Harlin, who quickly acknowledges that the film was not a huge hit
(something he blames on the film not being targeted to a young enough
demographic). He also graciously thanks the listener for choosing to watch the
disc (and, by default, listen to his commentary! Harlin has plenty of facts about
the film to share, although he can be a little dry, and once or twice is
deliberately evasive (he's coy about disclosing the identity of an actor
who pulled out of a starring role at the last minute, for example (it was
Michael Douglas), but he does reveal that Oliver Reed was originally cast in
the role of Mordachai Fingers (a part played in the film by George Murcell,
an Italian actor who will be very familiar to fans of ITC TV series). He's
also deliberately elusive about how a particularly impressive stunt was
achieved, simply saying that it was done with "a little magic".
Harlin reveals how he almost drowned a group of stuntmen, because
their heavy leather boots became waterlogged, and almost pulled them
underwater. He also has some interesting comments about how digital
technology is making it easier for directors to accommodate difficult
or unexpectedly absent actors. (In this case he's talking about The
Singing Detective's Patrick Malahide, whose character was due to die in an
sequence, which Harlin ultimately decided to drop, forcing him to write
the character out of the film earlier than expected).
commentary only falters once or twice, and is generally satisfying, but
you don't get the feeling that you've necessarily heard the whole story.
There also seems to be a minor problem with the commentary not precisely syncing
up with the film (perhaps something to do with the BBFC cuts?) At one
point Harlin identifies himself playing one of the
pirates, but unfortunately he isn't on screen when he says it.
disc has an awkward layer change (at 48'26", near the end of the
scene where Shaw is treating Morgan's gunshot wound). On the positive
side, the film has its original burnt-in captions, which establish the
various different locations. The film has optional English subtitles.
disc contains some worthwhile bonus material, including a six-minute behind
the scenes Making of featurette made to promote the film's
theatrical release, and a collection of
contemporaneous Interviews with Geena Davis (9m), Matthew Modine
(10m), Frank Langella (1m) and Renny Harlin (11m), some taken from press
junkets, some taken on-set and in costume, and some of it apparently
un-edited. They're simple, self-serving EPK (Electronic Press Kit)
interviews, but Momentum has presented them nicely, and they include one or
two interesting details that aren't covered by Harlin's
commentary. The Langella sound-bites were hardly worth including, though:
he only says four or five sentences! There are lip-sync problems with the Making of featurette, and the
Interviews, which were
sourced from NTSC masters. This is unfortunate, and avoidable, but not
disc also contains nine minutes of raw, unadorned Behind The Scenes B-roll
footage, featuring several of the film's elaborate stunt sequences
(proving that Davis and Modine performed many of their own action scenes),
the sword-fighting scenes, and some impressive pyrotechnics.
Storyboards are also offered, shown alongside an equivalent frame
from the finished film. This is a good way of presenting them, and the
boards themselves are artfully executed, so it's a shame that more of them
couldn't have been featured.
a dark, narration-free letterboxed trailer (1'18") shows just
how bad the film might have looked had Momentum not taken a great deal of
care with the transfer.
the bonus materials except for
the commentary track have optional English
Island deserved to be more successful than it was, and hopefully
Momentum's disc will help to resurrect its fortunes and reputation.
Certainly anyone who enjoyed the swashbuckling elements of Pirates of
the Caribbean should feel confident of an equally entertaining
2004 Update - Shortly after this
disc was released the BBFC changed the rules about films being issued in
different versions. They now allow this, providing certain guidelines are
followed (including advice about the two different versions having
markedly different packaging).