'Basic Instinct' lacks basic movie skills

March 20, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

About halfway through "Basic Instinct" I was seized with a primordial urge, a spasm of undeniable wanting that arose from deep within my being. I fought it, but what can a man do in the grip of such a demon? And so I gave in and . . . ZZZZZZ-ZZZZZZZZZ-ZZZZZZZZ!

Overpublicized and underbrained,"Basic Instinct" is a bitter disappointment, worth maybe a 10th of the hype that the media have so obligingly ladled out for its benefit. It makes you feel dirty in the morning. A thin and unconvincing mystery story, it is really driven forward not by plot or character but by the two or three quasi-hot scenes in which highly paid movie stars cavort like Erica and Long Dong in any of a half-million craftless tapes since porn moved to video.

The basic instinct celebrated feels more like plagiarism than sex: in plot, in character relationships, in everything except pleasure and skill, the movie seems a distillation of "Sea of Love," the excellent Al Pacino film from a Richard Price screenplay about a haunted detective who fell in love and had Fourth-of-July sex with the prime suspect in a series of grisly sex crimes. The only difference is that Richard Price really solved his mystery: screenwriter Joe Ezsterhas, the $3-million man, can't even manage that.

Michael Douglas is no Al Pacino. He's just Michael Douglas, long of jaw and grim of visage, who snarls at everybody. Douglas' San Francisco detective Nick Curran has a "history": he blew away two "tourists" during a drug buy, but has evidently suffered no career ramifications as a consequence. This makes him interesting to Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), an icy, blond millionaire novelist who collects murderers the way some people collect porcelain collies.

Catherine may be a murderer herself: in the opening moments we watch a faceless blond enjoy sadomasochistic sex with a man, then pop him like a balloon with a K mart ice pick in what is sadly to be the movie's liveliest scene (and it's over 45 seconds after the credits). Learning that Catherine was the dead man's girlfriend and that she had written a novel with such a murder

scene in it, Nick and his partner "Cowboy" (played dourly by the normally irrepressible George Dzundza)head out to question her, first encountering her female lover, which, of course, titillates Nick.

When Nick and Catherine confront each other, it's a case of instant hots. She tantalizes him; he tantalizes her. It's only a question of time. In fact, at a police interrogation, she puts on such a show that he becomes so enflamed he grabs his ex-girlfriend, a beautiful police psychiatrist. How do you spell relief? R-O-L-L I-N T-H-E H-A-Y. (The movie's second liveliest scene, by the way.) But soon enough he moves on to the the main event, and the movie is crudely designed to derive suspense from the ritual of seduction; as Nick falls deeper in love with Catherine, he becomes more and more vulnerable. He's the fly in the web and she's the spider-bitch. Meanwhile, she may or may not be counterplotting against him.

For all its fury and sound, "Basic Instinct" signifies naught. The characters are cartoons from a hundred other movies: the overwrought cop, the nymphomaniacal femme fatale, the best-buddy who, as soon as he mentions retirement, is a dead duck. Screenwriter Ezsterhas really doesn't do anything well: there's no sense of authentic cop milieu (which "Sea of Love" had in spades) and the dialogue is all generic; there's no genuine wit and the relationships aren't sharply imagined. There's also an ugly strain of misogyny running through the film: the makers deeply hate women.

The director is Paul Verhoeven, a famous Dutch bad boy (he did the wonderfully perverse "The Fourth Man") who moved on to some naughtily violent American hits in the original "RoboCop" and the overdone but amusing "Total Recall." He has always had a skill for storytelling, however questionable and tasteless the materials; but here he is hopelessly defeated by Ezsterhas' talky, slow-moving, and derivative script.

'Basic Instinct'

Starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven.

R-rated.

**

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