In 1993, filmmaker Renny Harlin and movie star Geena Davis were married. The union lasted less than five years, but it was pretty productive from an artistic standpoint, generating two of the most imaginative and in their own seam-bursting way graceful action-adventure blockbusters of the 90s: Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight, both of which transform their tried-and-true Hollywood genre trappings into kinetic cartoon daydreams the likes of which are unfortunately an increasingly rare breed in Hollywood.
Cutthroat Island was an infamous flop when it was released in 1995 and unlike the pair’s subsequent collaboration hasn’t really managed to shake off that reputation more than 25 years later. Plagued by bad press and budget bloat, I was surprised upon finally watching it recently how fleet it feels, and how much of its purported awkwardness can actually be attributed to its attempt to recapture a bygone era of guileless, childlike adventure in mainstream movies. Even the double-entendres in Cutthroat Island are pitched to a young adolescent mindset, and the action sequences (which make up an inordinate proportion of the film’s runtime) are a mixture of Keatonesque stunts and explosive violence that make you wonder how everyone survived the making of the movie.
Davis plays Morgan Adams, notorious pirate and niece to Frank Langella’s “Dawg” Brown, who’s a little bit like if you mixed together every evil pirate in the annals of history and fiction together and then honed it to a sharp diamond point. Langella plays the part without any of the stereotypical accoutrements like a peg leg, parrot, or eyepatch, but his mannerisms are all blood and mayhem. When the final naval fracas that makes up Cutthroat Island’s climax breaks into a boil, Dawg is seen pumping his arms triumphantly in the air and growling “I love this!,” an apt crystallization of the film’s primary entertainment stratagem: to overload the screen with color and excitement, no matter the cost.
The cost was steep. Cutthroat Island is by some measures the biggest financial failure in Hollywood history, serving to bankrupt Carolco Pictures in the process. Pirate films are traditionally a tough sell with modern American audiences, and they simply were not interested in Davis as an action star or Matthew Modine as her romantic foil. Reams of bad press creating what is informally known as an Ishtar Effect didn’t help matters, as nothing is more anathema to a film like this than the hypercritical eyes of general audiences poised to attack any stray unusual element as proof of its disaster status. And by 1995, action audiences were used to Quentin Tarantino or Shane Black giving all of their hip characters ostentatiously smart mouths, while the quips in Cutthroat Island are anything but hip.
There’s a hyperreality to Cutthroat Island, evident in everything from the costumes and sets to the camerawork and even the dialogue, that seems tied to a realm of imagination that was already on the way out in the mid-90s. Harlin’s knack for cartoon physics works perfectly in that context -- check out the scene where Davis and Modine time their drop off a perilous cliff so they land just as a giant wave crashes against the rocks below and breaks their fall, or the sequence in which Davis (with the help of some skillful digital compositing) crashes through a window and rolls off a roof to land on the carriage speeding underneath. Moments like that are not really any more plausible than Wile E. Coyote hovering above a deep chasm because he hasn’t realized he’s supposed to fall yet, but they work because the visual mechanics used to convey them on-screen are sturdy and clear -- for me, this is one of the most vital components of Harlin’s signature style as one of the masters of cartoonish but somehow convincing physics in screen action.
Davis prided herself on doing her own stunts whenever possible, showing off scrapes and bruises on late night talk shows, and she’s joined in this endeavor in Cutthroat Island by her costar. Neither Davis nor Modine are anyone’s ideas of a classic action star but they are working overtime to make you believe it here, and there’s a moment to be cherished late in the film where Modine can be seen smiling with visible satisfaction after nailing a rope swing from one part of a pirate ship to another in mid-air. The fact that he clearly isn’t acting in that moment is a neat summation of the appeal of this sort of physical stunt work in movies -- stunt work that, again, was already becoming a thing of the past when Cutthroat Island was made.
Cutthroat Island was the kind of commercial debacle that can end careers in Hollywood, but fortunately for Harlin and Davis (not to mention the viewing public), they were able to re-team the following year for The Long Kiss Goodnight, with some added help in the form of Samuel L. Jackson and a script by Shane Black. Watching both these films back to back, I was struck by the thought that even though they’re set in completely different worlds (17th century pirates vs 20th century spies and private eyes, buried treasure vs ticking time bomb), they share the same total divorce from physical reality. Like her possible ancestor Captain Morgan, Davis’s Long Kiss Goodnight heroine has a knack for seemingly impossible acts of physical derring-do -- instead of breaking her fall with a carefully timed plunge into a breaking wave, she shoots a hole out of solid ice underneath her so she can land (relatively) safely in freezing cold water, and she also makes it a habit of knowing where people around her are stashing guns on their person so she can get at them when she needs them, no matter how inaccessible they may seem.
Cutthroat Island is plotted like an old silent movie, with a very straightforward point A/point B structure, simply a clothesline for all the action scenes. The Long Kiss Goodnight on the other hand is plotted like a somewhat involved pulp novel, familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of screenwriter Black’s work. In turn, Davis gets a much more interesting character to work with in her superkiller-turned-amnesiac-suburban-mom Samantha Caine/Charlie Baltimore, and a (no offense to Matthew Modine) upgraded partner in Jackson’s Mitch Hennessey. Here we get essentially two Geena Davises for the price of one: the unassuming mother and her master assassin alter-ego, who gets sucked back into the game in a plot that draws from The Bourne Identity and the classic film noir Out of the Past.
The Long Kiss Goodnight was not a Cutthroat Island caliber commercial disaster but it wasn’t a blockbuster success either. But, also unlike Cutthroat, it’s gained a significant following in the years since and is something of a recognized action classic, albeit not at the same level as something like the Lethal Weapon franchise. It even served as a primary touchstone for the most mainstream entertainment there is these days, a Marvel movie: Captain Marvel, also starring Samuel L. Jackson as partner to an amnesiac woman who’s forgotten her past as a highly trained supersoldier. But its analog action scenes, some of which seem to be barely holding together under their own ambition, have a charm and excitement that simply can’t be matched by the superslick action spectacles of today.
In 1997, the year after the release of The Long Kiss Goodnight, Renny Harlin and Geena Davis announced their divorce to the public. Looking over their work since then and comparing it to these two incomparable entertainments, it’s hard not to conclude that they were never quite the same afterwards. But they, and we, will always have Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight, to serve as a reminder of what it’s like to be young, in love, and flying through the air like a Looney Tune.