To borrow an old joke, Basic Instinct starts off with a bang — literally. In an elegantly spacious bedroom, a couple is having nasty, frenzied sex (the only kind anyone has in this movie). We can’t see their faces too well, but that’s okay; their bodies will do. The woman, a curvy blond with silky-smooth tan skin (the only kind anyone has in this movie), begins straddling the man. He reaches back and grabs the bars on the headboard, S&M-style, and she binds his hands. There is much groaning and writhing. Then, just as her forceful gyrations bring him to a loud, sweaty, soul-wrenching climax (the only kind anyone has in this movie), she produces an ice pick and plunges it into his upper body, over and over, sending bright gobs of blood spurting everywhere.

Ah, sweet mysteries of love! This high-powered meat tenderizer of an opening can’t help but dovetail with the welter of controversy and publicity — at this point, is there really any difference? — that has swirled around Basic Instinct ever since it was shot in San Francisco last spring. This, you may recall, is the movie that aroused the ire of gay groups, that seemed destined for an NC-17 rating (though, of course, it was trimmed to get a more commercially desirable R), that had a script by Joe Eszterhas (Jagged Edge, Flashdance) that fetched a record $3 million. With that sort of buildup, the film sounded like a sheer sensationalistic blowout, a Pandora’s box of smashed taboos — the sort of thing you want to see precisely because it promises one lurid, quasi-pornographic cheap thrill after another.

Well, folks, you can loosen your seat belts. Basic Instinct, which stars Michael Douglas as a jaded cop and Sharon Stone as a bisexual ice princess who becomes the prime suspect in a murder case, has just enough sleaze and drive to keep you watching. Visually, it’s edgy and impressive — it has the glowing, molten orange moodiness of an elegant hotel lobby — and it works hard to tap into the dark, seductive space where hot sex meets cold dread. Beneath its heavy-breathing fripperies, though, the movie is mechanical and routine, a muddle of Hitchcockian red herrings and standard cop-thriller ballistics.

There are four unusually lengthy and explicit sex scenes, but these centerpiece couplings depend on the sort of officially ”hot” devices (feverish foreplay while standing against a wall, a shirt being ripped open, the aforementioned bondage) that are no longer shocking, or even very titillating. Most of the scenes make such a big point of being daring — Look! Is that Michael Douglas performing oral sex?! — that they’re less erotic than showy. At one point the characters go to an ambisexual dance club and the leering ”decadence” is shoved in our faces. You half expect the place to be called Dante’s Inferno.

The man killed in the opening scene was a retired rock star who’d been sleeping with Catherine Tramell (Stone). She’s a rich seductress and, as it turns out, a writer who has recently published a novel about — yes! — a rock star who was bound during sex and murdered with an ice pick. Is Catherine the killer? Or is someone trying to frame her? Since there are only two other possible suspects (one of them, Catherine’s lesbian lover, is barely a character), the movie doesn’t exactly put us in a vise of suspense. It’s more like a game of either/or.

Enter Nick Curran (Douglas), a cop suffering guilt pangs from an incident in which he killed several tourists. A former alcoholic and coke fiend, Nick has gone cold turkey and even quit smoking. Meeting the luscious Catherine puts an end to that, though. During an interrogation at the police station (the most entertaining scene in the movie), she teases Nick and the other men into a hormonal sweat, tossing out dirty little comments like firecrackers and uncrossing her legs to reveal her taste in underwear (none). It doesn’t take long for Nick, the born substance abuser, to get the message: This woman is the ultimate bad habit.

Sharon Stone, in her first major-league role, comes on like a postfeminist Grace Kelly. She turns her haughty, slightly blank, cheerleader sexiness into something vampish and ominous — an all-American beauty mask. Douglas, as always, plays a rotter hero with style. Catherine and Nick are drawn to the anger in each other’s sexuality. The movie can make explicit the sadomasochistic impulses that were hinted at in the dark thrillers of the ’40s and ’50s.

If only Basic Instinct had a little of their slyness and logic! The film was directed by Paul Verhoeven, the talented Dutch-born filmmaker who made the dazzlingly nihilistic RoboCop (1987) and the amusing but ludicrous Total Recall (1990). In ”Basic Instinct,” he must have decided to play the clunky, implausible script as a semi-joke. It says much about the state of movies today that $3 million buys dialogue like ”You’re dealing with a devious, diabolical mind!” or the destined-to-be-quoted ”She’s evil…and brilliant!” The film practically dares us to giggle at how obvious it is. When Catherine fixes Nick a drink at her seaside mansion, she takes out an ice pick and a block of ice and begins hacking away. The moment is meant to be borderline ridiculous. What the filmmakers don’t quite seem to realize is that an overwrought cliché is still a cliché. B-

Basic Instinct
  • Movie
  • 127 minutes