Patrick Malahide as Governor Ainslee in “Cutthroat Island”

Fopped way up to eleven

Fopped way up to eleven

Patrick Malahide played Governor Ainslee in “Cutthroat Island” (1995),  which is one of those “seemed like a good idea at the time” movies.  It has the elements of what could have made it a good movie and a lot of people working very hard, yet the end result was… something ultimately unsatisfying.  A number of factors went into creating something that wound up as rather bad; however, I don’t think that Patrick Malahide’s performance was one of them.  If anything, I think he was underutilized and did a great job with what he had to work with; his scenes ended up being the best in the entire show.

It starts off as your usual pirate movie.  Who doesn’t like a pirate movie, right?  The score by John Debney is great, and sounds as if it belongs to a much better movie – something with Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in it, maybe – but we don’t yet realize what we’re in for, until a few seconds later when Morgan Adams (Geena Davis) appears on screen.  The movie is determined to subvert every paradigm to make Morgan a credible female pirate – not a bad goal at all, since there have been any number of real-life bad-ass female pirates and a really good adventure movie about any one of them would be fun – but it sets about doing this in such a painfully clumsy, ham-handed way that it ends up defeating itself before it’s barely gotten started.

Subverting Paradigms with Bad Dialogue

Anyway, Morgan is just getting dressed after a one-night stand with a French(? I presumed he was French) lieutenant (see?  nudging the paradigm already) when after some sweet talk, he pulls a pistol on her, revealing he knew who she was all along (a “famous” female pirate) and that he intends to bring her to the governor of Port Royal to collect on some reward money.  She then reveals that of course she knew he knew, with an amused laugh and an “I took your balls!” taunt as she tosses the shot from his pistol in her hand.  Ooo, heavy-handed double entendre!  Ooo, isn’t she a bad ass!  Let’s crush that paradigm under an anvil!  The entire scene is not helped at all by Davis’ complete and utter lack of any accent besides American, her “golly gee, ain’t I naughty?” demeanour, and her somewhat flat delivery.  I’m not sure who could’ve made that line work (although I’ll present some theories later), but the whole thing just reeks of trying way too hard, which results in Morgan being a Mary Sue.  I hate Mary Sues.  This does not bode well.

A Treasure Map and Family Dysfunction

Like many good better pirate movies, this one involves a treasure map and some pirate family dysfunction.  Morgan’s uncle, Douglas “Dawg” Brown (Frank Langella), is collecting pieces of a treasure map distributed amongst him and his two brothers.  Why it took him so long to get around to it is a question worth asking, but we’ll set that aside for now.  He attempts to intimidate Black Harry Adams (Harris Yulin), Morgan’s father, into telling Dawg where his piece of the map is but Harry escapes, though he’s fatally wounded in the process.  He has just enough time to gasp to Morgan with his dying breath (cliché!) that she should shave his head; he’s had his part of the treasure map tattooed onto his scalp.  Not a bad gimmick!  Good thing he wasn’t prone to male pattern baldness.

A Very Swank Party

Meeting the other Trotter

Meeting the other Trotter

We next arrive at a very swank Port Royal party being hosted by Governor Ainslee, who is fopped all the way up to eleven – maybe even past eleven; he’s a vision in expensive lamé, brocade, and lace, bows everywhere, with a long, flowing, curly dark brown wig and fashionably pale make-up (the overall effect is a bit startling at first!).  Ainslee has also been cursed with a somewhat indifferent lieutenant as his gofer, whose name he can’t even remember:  “What is your name again…  Plopper, Squinter?”  The luckless lieutenant’s name is Trotter (Angus Wright), and sadly, he’s nowhere near as competent as the other Trotter; he’s the sort of guy who’d drink from his fingerbowl and find some way to yank the entire tablecloth off the table while doing it.  Ainslee orders Trotter to make nice with a woman whose father is a big investor in the colonies, but he’s beaten to the punch by party-crasher William Shaw (Matthew Modine), attempting to ooze charm from every pore.  I say “attempting” because Modine is unfortunately suffering from the same afflictions as Davis:  utter lack of any accent, wooden delivery, and a “golly gee!” trying-too-hard demeanour, and the charm just falls flat.  Anyway, Shaw is supposed to be a roguish jewel thief who may or may not be a doctor as well (you can see the “love interest!!” neon signs flashing already), and after robbing some of the ladies in attendance at the party, he’s quickly apprehended and hauled off to be sold as a slave.

Off to Find the Rest of the Map

After an extremely unconvincing scene (unconvincing because there’s no tension to it whatsoever and Davis’ “rousing” rah-rah speech totally isn’t) in which Morgan persuades her father’s crew to (1) let her be the new captain, and (2) collect the next part of the map from her Uncle Mordechai, so they can (3) defeat Dawg, and (4) go get all that lovely treasure, Morgan somehow hears about a prisoner in Port Royal who speaks Latin, a skill she needs to decipher her father’s map.  Actually, she somehow hears about him ahead of time, since she tells her crew she needs a day to get to Port Royal.  Because she’s a Mary Sue, this is fine with them, with the exception of one guy, Tom Scully (Jimmie Skaggs) whom we just know will be Trouble™ later.

A Spot of Bother

Noticing a spot of bother at the slave auction

Noticing a spot of bother at the slave auction

Morgan shows up at the slave market to buy Shaw, where she’s recognized from a “wanted” poster as the “infamous lady pirate” – quite a feat since she didn’t even have her own ship until a day ago(!); what is she famous for?? – which, of course, starts a massive fight/chase scene when the governor’s troops try to arrest her.  Ainslee gets involved when Morgan steals his carriage, and I must say that Patrick Malahide acquits himself extremely well on horseback, giving chase at full gallop through crowded (and exploding!) streets, leading the charge, and somehow keeping his hat on all at the same time!  Ainslee might be a fop, but he’s no coward and doesn’t shy away from action.

Bested by Morgan (but only because the script said so)

Bested by Morgan
(but only because the script said so)

Several complicated stunts and explosions (and painfully bad banter between Morgan and Shaw) later – seriously, apparently they store nothing but gasoline and other unstable flammables in the storefronts and homes of Port Royal, all nicely touched off by a ship in the harbour firing on the town to get Morgan, of course, completely heedless of any collateral damage or death (Ainslee really should have a word with that captain) – Morgan and Shaw improbably escape and Ainslee is left gnashing his teeth in impotent anger, saying,  “Black Harry’s girl. Well, well. She’s made a proper fool of me, hasn’t she?” No, it was just in the script that she had to get away.

An Offer He Can’t Refuse

Would you believe it took me a while to notice the dog?

Would you believe it took me a while
to notice the dog?

While Morgan and Shaw decipher the map – which, as it turns out, isn’t written in Latin, but in backwards script – Ainslee makes pirate chronicle author John Reed (Maury Chaykin) an offer he can’t refuse.  As he cuddles in his carriage with an extremely contented-looking Cavalier King Charles spaniel, he tells Reed to tell Morgan to cut him in for a share of her grandfather’s treasure (how he knows about it or that she’s after it isn’t explained) or else she’ll end up as “dinner for crows” – and so could Reed, if he doesn’t do as Ainslee wishes.  Reed, who is one of the designated betrayers of Morgan and kind of a weasel, quickly agrees.

After some more complicated stunts and explosions in a Spittlefield tavern (is there gasoline stored everywhere on these islands?) Morgan and Shaw escape Dawg, after Shaw manages to find Mordechai’s (George Murcell) part of the map.  Sadly, Mordechai doesn’t survive the process.  You’d think all the explosions would make things more exciting, but they really don’t; they get a bit boring.  I did have to wince on Matthew Modine’s behalf when I saw him get accidentally clonked on the head by a falling barrel – and yes, of course director Renny Harlin still used the shot.

A Surgery,  a Storm, and a Mutiny

On the way to fabled Cutthroat Island, Shaw carries out some of the least convincing hip surgery ever on Morgan, who was shot back at Spittlefield and has been bravely hiding it since (Mary Sue!).  The surgery scene is just terrible, with Morgan emitting tiny, ladylike “ows!” as if she’s having a hangnail removed rather than major surgery, while trading more dreadful double entendre banter with Shaw:  “You mean you’ll show me yours if I show you mine?” Then there’s also a storm (during which Reed improbably sends a messenger pigeon to Ainslee with Cutthroat Island’s location – did he seriously bring messenger pigeons and no one noticed??) because you have to have at least one storm in a pirate movie, and also a mutiny against Morgan – because you need to have at least one mutiny, too.  And no, neither of these things make the story more exciting, either.

Everybody Meets at Rick’s Cutthroat Island

It will come as a surprise to no one that Morgan and her Good Guy crew members who refused to mutiny, Shaw, Dawg, and Ainslee all end up at Cutthroat Island at the same time.  Morgan and Shaw find the treasure cave (because there has to be a treasure cave) after Shaw successfully steals Dawg’s part of the map.  They’re discovered by Dawg while Shaw is hanging off a rope partway up the side of a cliff and they (extremely improbably) survive a huge drop into crashing ocean water below.  But at least so far there’s no gasoline on this island.

Tea on the beach

Tea on the beach

Reed (improbably – I keep using that word) finds Shaw on the rocks and brings him to Dawg and Ainslee (thank God he’s back!  it was getting very boring without him) who are having a lovely tea party on the beach, complete with china cups and a crocheted tablecloth.  Ainslee’s made an alliance with Dawg and together they’re taking the treasure back to Port Royal.  You might find it odd that Ainslee’s suddenly formed an alliance with a pirate he used to be hunting; I know I did, but I guess Ainslee’s greed for the treasure is meant to explain that.  They take Shaw prisoner – why they don’t just kill him then and there, I don’t know, but you’d think it’d save them some trouble – and Ainslee puts Trotter (“Trot-TAH!!“) in charge of unloading the treasure because he’s worried about being seen dirtying his hands with such things.  Come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure why Dawg doesn’t just kill Ainslee at this point, either.

Mary Sue to the Rescue

Morgan sneaks aboard her own ship, now being captained by Evil Tom Scully, by coming up with the anchor.  Amongst her other numerous untold talents,  she apparently also has Indiana Jones-like abilities to hold her breath underwater, but hey, Mary Sue.  This also accounts for her nearly unscathed state, except for a decorous cut here and there, after surviving the fall from the cliffs.  She frees her imprisoned crew single-handedly (still subverting paradigms – gag), retakes her ship without so much as a shot being fired (Mary Sue!), and throws the mutinous Scully and miscellaneous Bad Guy crew overboard, though she keeps Trotter around for window dressing.  She immediately decides to catch up to Dawg and sink him, even though he has the treasure, because having two pirate ships in a movie means that you must have a naval battle at some point.  Although it occurs to me that there should be three ships in the area, because otherwise how the heck did Ainslee get there, and so damn quickly??

Something’s Amiss

Noticing something's amiss

Noticing something’s amiss

Ainslee actually does notice something’s amiss in that the other ship appears to be trying to catch up but he doesn’t connect it to anything nefarious going on; instead, he thinks that Trotter wants his advice.  Dawg, however, is immediately suspicious and has his crew go to battle stations quietly, without alerting the other ship or Ainslee, whom you’d think would be observant enough to notice such things (except when the script says he doesn’t).  Dawg also suggests that they hang Shaw right away (as a means of drawing Morgan out), and Ainslee agrees:  “Might be rather amusing. One doesn’t often get the chance to see a hanging at sea.”  However, Morgan’s first mate Blair (Rex Linn) precipitates things by shooting the hangman when Morgan hesitates to do so, and the big naval battle gets underway.

Much Sound and Fury…

Our last glimpse of Ainslee :-(

Our last glimpse of Ainslee 🙁

Lots and lots of complicated stunts and explosions ensue.  Apparently these two ships are carrying all of the gasoline that wasn’t on the island and even their cannonballs are filled with it, because there’s lots of flame and kabooms and smoke but not that much in the way of  major structural damage.  Ainslee is up and fighting throughout (he’s no shrinking violet – compare with Shaw, who spends a lot of the fight swinging from ship to ship) until he’s immolated by one particularly large explosion – which I must say, looked like it was extremely dangerous to film, and I really hope no one came to any harm – and that’s the last we see of him.  🙁

Final Confrontation and Really Bad Dialogue

There’s lots more fighting, during which Trotter changes sides (oh, so that’s why Morgan’s crew didn’t kill him – so he could change sides later), until eventually it comes down to a showdown between Morgan and Dawg on his ship.  They fight all over the damn ship, including up on the crow’s nest – seriously, they climb all the way up there just to have a sword fight where Morgan can turn down Dawg’s Darth Vader offer (“Join me!”) and miraculously survive a fall alllll the way down into the hold (Mary Sue!).  While Shaw, pinned by the crated treasure, tries not to drown, Morgan lures Dawg close enough to a…  spare cannon??? which happens to be conveniently loaded and primed(!), so that she can fire it at him from point blank range while uttering the worst line of dialogue ever:  “Bad Dawg!”  Note that several laws of physics, probability, and logic are broken when instead of ripping through Dawg like a wet sponge, the cannonball instead propels him, intact, out the stern of his ship.  Yeeeaaaahh, right.  Can we have Ainslee back?

Dawg’s gasoline-filled ship explodes just as Morgan and Shaw leap clear in the nick of time.  It actually sounds more exciting in writing than it does to watch it, because at no time was I in any doubt that the Mary Sue and her Love Interest would survive.  Being a Mary Sue, she of course thought to tie a hollow barrel to the treasure before Dawg’s ship sank, marking its location, and conveniently, the rope was just the right length.   The crew avows its devotion to Morgan anew, and they all set off for Madagascar for more pirating.  Gaaahhh!!

The Good Bits and Bad Bits

This… was really a terrible movie, and I hope Mr. Malahide at least got a decent vacation in Thailand or on Malta out of it.  He did a wonderful job with the lines that he had, even if it seemed that his role ended up being not very menacing.  As usual, he was very good at combining a touch of arrogance and ruthlessness with a bit of over-confidence, even if Ainslee seemed rather unrealistically trusting in forming an alliance with the same pirates he was hanging and offering rewards for back in Port Royal.  Frank Langella managed to be very menacing (and really looked the part of a pirate), but of course he had to Die Comically Yet Horribly because he was a credible threat to the Mary Sue.

As for Geena Davis…  her ex-boyfriend/ex-husband Renny Harlin directed this with the idea it’d make her a big action star, but apparently no one ever had a word with him about believability or subtlety, or even good writing versus bad.  Props to her for doing much of her own stunt work (apparently at Harlin’s insistence), but her delivery is just terrible and stays that way throughout, and none of it is helped by the plot being handed to her character on a silver platter.  And Matthew Modine tried hard, bless his heart – I really did feel badly for him when that barrel hit his head – but he just doesn’t have the chops to bring this one off.  His delivery is likewise terrible and just comes out flat.  And the script-doctored double entendres don’t improve things at all.

Admin has suggested, and I agree, that one way to completely change the direction of this movie would be to imagine it with Cary Elwes as Shaw and Divine as Morgan.  Elwes has the right sort of insouciance and winking self-awareness to make Shaw’s lines genuinely funny, while Divine could put a suitably campy spin on lines like “Bad Dawg!” or “I took your balls!” Elwes could certainly handle such a co-star, and together they’d be hilariously funny.  Everyone else would stay the same and would have to play it absolutely straight, though they might not be interested any longer in being in what would be more of a cult/farce movie rather than an action/adventure.  But just imagine Divine as a pirate queen!  John Waters would have to direct.  😉

On the bright side, Patrick Malahide looks wonderful in foppish fashions, did some skilled riding in his hot-pursuit galloping charge scene, and acquitted himself well as Ainslee.  His scenes were the best part of the whole thing; he had some wonderfully acerbic yet charming lines, and his constant tormenting of Trotter (“Trot-TAAHH!!“) was a joy to behold.  I would have enjoyed seeing what he could have done with the role if Ainslee’d had more clout and opportunities for action.  It’d be great to see him in a real pirate movie sometime – maybe playing the pirate.  Oh wait, he was in “Kidnapped“, wasn’t he?  And Balon’s a pirate, too.  Mind you, neither of them are fops, but there’s still hope!


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