IT MAY BE TIME for chastened New Year’s resolutions at the home of producer-director Renny Harlin and his wife, Geena Davis, now that the high-seas demolition derby CUTTHROAT ISLAND (MGM, PG-13) has blown up in their faces. Really, the pair should feel both repentant and fortunate, since their grievously flat-footed attempt at a feminized 17th-century pirate swashbuckler got far less bad press than Waterworld but, unlike the Kevin Costner epic, sank aborning at the box office (it reportedly cost more than $100 million and is unlikely to gross even one fourth that amount in the U.S.).
Who thought letting Harlin steer into Captain Blood territory was a sage idea? To a piece that’s intended as a comic, tongue-in-cheek romp, he brings the same brutal, slo-mo pyrotechnics that lit up both his hits (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) and his biggest previous miss (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane). Between clockwork explosions that send scores of sniveling males flying on missile trajectories like so many Wile E. Coyotes, Harlin leaves poor, wet Davis to affect an all-for-one air despite witless ripostes on the order of ”Do you think I was born last Wednesday?”
Amid mountains of charred embers – several sizable towns go up along with the ships – some sparks do glow between Davis and Matthew Modine; he’s reasonably dashing as a thieving slave who helps his mistress vanquish her evil uncle, Dawg (Frank Langella). The chemistry never bubbles long, though, thanks to Harlin’s disturbingly gore-minded sensibility. The Finnish-born director is the son of a physician and a nurse, which may help explain why he’s so fond of spicing the action with clinical cutaways to decayed cadavers, putrefying foodstuffs, and, most often, a treasure map printed on a hacked-off scalp. The light catches the clotted blood and the fine hairs along the edges just so. Somewhere, Errol Flynn is wincing. D