Worth A Look: 18.87%
Just Average: 15.09%
Pretty Crappy: 33.96%
6 reviews, 70 user ratings
by Jack Sommersby
It's hardly boring; then again, it's hardly believable.The erotic thriller Basic Instinct is entertaining but illogical as hell. With its graphic sex scenes and grotesque violence, this is far from subtle filmmaking -- it thrusts full-frontal nudity and gore at you with the pride of a parent flashing pictures of their newborn child. Then again, what else could one expect from Joe Eszterhas, the screenwriter of Showgirls and Jade, and Paul Verhoeven, the director of Robocop and Total Recall? They know how to serve up "the goods", emphasizing the crudest aspects of a story and leaving their characters on a disposable, two-dimensional level; they dish out sin, are skillful enough in doing so, and never look back. But even trashiness needs some semblance of coherence, and that's where Eszterhas' and Verhoeven's frat-boy, tawdry mentalities have their disadvantages. We never find ourselves caring for or identifying with their characters, and their stories are so direly lacking in plausibility that it's hard to have any stake in how they turn out. We look forward only to the trash, and the hell with everything else. Not since screenwriter Oliver Stone and director Michael Cimino teamed for the 1985 police thriller Year of the Dragon has there been a more sensationalistic piece of high-glitz trash.
"Entertaining but Just too Ludicrous"
Michael Douglas stars as Nick Curran, a San Francisco homicide detective who finds quite the fatal attraction in Catherine Tramell (played by Sharon Stone), the girlfriend of a slain retired rock 'n roll star, Johnny Boz. In the film's opening, Boz is stabbed to death by a blonde woman with an ice pick as his arms are tied to a bedpost. We never see the woman's face -- just her blonde hair (and, of course, most of her lust-inducing body). So could Catherine be the woman in question? She confesses to having had a drink with Boz at his club, left with him, but went on home on her own because she wasn't "in the mood." Making Curran and his partner, Gus (George Dzunda), more suspicious is Catherine's lack of remorse over the killing ("I wasn't dating him, I was fucking him" is her response). The police chief is wary of pursuing her as a suspect, though, in fear of possible litigation in lieu of her net worth of over one hundred million, which, as she herself points out later on, buys a lot of attorneys. Oh, and have I divulged that Catherine is a Berkley graduate with degrees in Psychology and Literature, writes trashy novels, and whose latest, Love Hurts, is about a retired rock 'n roll star killed by an icepick-wielding blonde while he's tied to a bedpost?
Investigating her is Nick, who has quite the troubled history as a cop. He's shot and killed four people in the last five years -- three of them tourists who got in the line of fire during an undercover drug bust while he was under the influence. He's an ex-cokehead and borderline alcoholic; Gus is his only friend; he's nicknamed "Shooter" by his colleagues; and he's screwing the departmental psychiatrist, Beth Garner (Jean Tripplehorn), who, at the request of Internal Affairs, is evaluating whether he's mentally fit for duty. Nick's lost all hope for a cheerful life -- he's had the soul burned right out of him -- and he can only get turned on by danger, so it's little wonder that he all too willingly falls under Catherine's spell. He can't resist living out the storyline of her new novel: that of a cop falling for the wrong woman -- who ends up killing him. What we're supposed to be witnessing is the matching of wits between two intelligent people, but the way it plays out, Catherine is the one holding all the cards, while Nick is playing (and is played for) the fool. The film's centerpiece is a no-holds-barred sex scene where they finally bed down, with Catherine trying Nick up with the same brand of white Hermes silk scarves used in Boz' slaying -- and Nick hoping like hell his suspicions of her are wrong.
Joe Eszterhas was paid a then-record price of three million for his screenplay, and with its clever plot construction you can clearly see what impressed the studios. When Beth is revealed to have had a past sexual encounter with Catherine back in her Berkley days, that she (according to Catherine) developed an obsessive fixation on her -- copying her clothes and dyeing her hair like hers -- the audience wonders whether she killed Boz as is described in Catherine's book to frame her. Back and forth, back and forth the twists and turns are dished out to us, and you can never be sure exactly what's adding up and what isn't because Verhoeven keeps everything moving at such a brisk pace that you're left with little downtime to contemplate matters. Still, you're prevented from buying into the labyrinth storyline because it keeps shooting off into byzantine directions -- it's like taking a tour of a seamy red-light district in Amsterdam while the hyped-up guide keeps diverting your attention from one tantalizing sight to another, depriving you of the opportunity get a proper reading on things. (Eszterhas and Verhoeven would make lousy strippers: They'd give only a mere glimpse of their "goods.") Obviously, they know the inner logic of the material is lacking, with the problem further compounded by the flashy but empty lead characters and insubstantial secondary ones; with the absence of valid dramatic underpinnings, a perceptive audience hasn't a single character to empathize with as compensation for the shaky story. Eszterhas's rotten dialogue is another liability, though there are a couple of enjoyable howlers:
"Well, she got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain!"
(and, I swear, when a renowned clinical psychiatrist is asked what kind of killer they're up against, he replies with)
"You're dealing with a devious, diabolical mind."
Basic Instinct is like a lot of Hollywood thrillers: initially interesting but hackneyed. There's a pointless sequence where Nick and Catherine engage in a car chase down a two-lane twisting mountain highway in heavy traffic for no discernible reason other than to serve as a dire attempt to jack up the energy level. Another chase through the streets of San Francisco is just as pointless and succeeds only at validating the unwritten rule that police squad cars in the world of filmdom are never to be found on the streets whenever these chases take place. (I was reminded of James Belushi's line from the great 1988 actioner Red Heat: "There's never a cop around when you need one; you make a U-turn and they're all over your ass!") And you have to wonder whether any of the other cops have a brain between them; they're doing work on the case too, but no one but Nick seems to follow up on any of the clues. Furthermore, where's the press? In what would surely be a high-profile case -- a feeding frenzy for the local media, no doubt -- except on the morning of the discovery of Boz's body, there's nary a reporter to be found skulking around police headquarters hounding Nick or trying to follow his every move. But all this pales in comparison to the palpably absurd final shot, where you're brought up short by the blatant implication that the assumed culprit behind the murders was a patsy, and that the actual killer has gottem away with it. It's the ultimate ugly side to commercial filmmaking: bringing the audience up short for the sole sake of, well, bringing the audience up short.
However, the artistic merits of Basic Instinct cannot be ignored. Verhoeven knows how to work us over, and his sleek style and surefire command of the film medium gives the story plenty of oomph! We may not buy into what's being presented to us, but we're consistently held nevertheless. Call the film illogical, crass, or repulsive (or all three) if you wish, yet you can't deny it its saving grace: there isn't a boring moment in it. In fact, as a purely technical exercise, Basic Instinct is a virtuoso achievement -- a flawless fusing of production design, cinematography, editing, costuming, and, especially, scoring (it's possibly veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith's finest work). If only the acting and characterizations were as high-grade!
In a rare ineffectual performance, Michael Douglas comes off less like a disheveled wreck of a human being than a clunky actor uncertain how to approach his role. He doesn't bring the right presence to the role of Nick -- you never really buy there are dark, seedy impulses circulating throughout him, threatening to burst if not soon sated. Douglas seems unfocused and downright callow; he never takes command of the screen the way a superstar of his status should. (And, excepting Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, he does -- hands down -- the worst drunken scene in film history, flailing his arms about with an uncouthness too over-the-top even for an off-off-Broadway production drenched in avant-garde pretentiousness). Sharon Stone comes off a bit better. She at least gives her line readings some authority; and in a crucial scene where Catherine tearfully confesses to Nick that everyone she grows to care about dies, the moment has some resonance. She's so magnetic you just can't accept her settling for a sunken and drunken stick like Nick in the end. (Note: For Stone's best performance, check out her excellent work as the death-row inmate in the 1996 prison drama Last Dance.) Jeanne Tripplehorn boasts adorable chipmunk looks (she's reason enough to justify a cheekbone fetish) but lacks the internal depth to convince as Nick's figurative doppelganger. The rest of the cast is strictly mediocre (though it must be noted that Denis Arndt makes a strong impression with his rich vocal inflections as Nick's alert lieutenant).
It's a shame that Basic Instinct doesn't really deliver a whole lot in the way of psychological depth; it suggests more complexity than it actually delivers. On the other hand, it's as chock-full of colorful sequences and technical bravado than most thrillers considering that the filmmakers are unable to sustain much in the way of tension and suspense. You just can't take your eye off it. Is this a recommendation? Well, no -- it's just too dumb. Still, it makes for nasty fun.
There are two DVD releases of Basic Instinct out on the home video market by Artisan Entertainment. The first is a bare-bones disc with only a gorgeous 2.35:1 widescreen transfer to recommend it. The other is a Collector's Edition that comes packaged in a see-through plastic case with indentations in it in the shape of jagged ice cube edges. There's also what appears to be a mini-icepick inside of it, which turns out to be a pen which writes with (anybody, anybody?) red ink.
The unrated version includes a shot of an ice pick stabbing through Johnny Boz' nose -- an effect f/x master Rob Bottin was exclusively brought in for -- and one of Michael Douglas making tongue-lapping motions between Sharon Stone's legs. But the best is the restoration of Douglas' and Jeanne Tripplehorn's sex scene. In the R-rated version, it starts out with an animal-like primitiveness only to suddenly end; in the unrated one, Douglas viciously pins Tripplehorn over a couch (her lovely bottom is better showcased), penetrates her from behind, and more or less rapes her. It adds a much darker side to Nick, and also hints that Beth, who, while resisting, resists yet luxuriates in this, may be holding back a darker nature of her own. It's the only real powerful moment in the film.
There are two running commentaries to choose from. One is with director Verhoeven and cinematographer Jan De Bont, both of whom certainly aren't in short supply of observations. It's certainly entertaining, but Verhoeven always comes off like he's on the ultimate caffeine jag, and you sometimes just pray for him to shut the hell up and let the more elegant De Bont go at it solo. The second is by feminist film critic Camille Paglia, who surprisingly loves the film and considers it one of her all-time favorites. Yet her commentary is also difficult to sit through. Enthusiasm for a film is certainly welcome in a commentary, yet when Paglia starts breaking things down to banal symbolisms -- the opening killing with the ice pick is interpreted as, "Woman steals man's penis and uses it against him." -- you find yourself involuntarily cringing. She certainly isn't boring, but more often than not you're left wondering why you can't hear the sound recorders laughing themselves silly in the recording booth.
The featurette Blond Poison is a revealing look at the uproar the film caused with feminists and gay activists during the filming in San Francisco. A copy of the script found its way into their possession, and they deplored it as being "anti-gay" and a reinforcement of Hollywood homophobia, with the co-founder of the publication Queer Nation asserting that it carries on the tradition of presenting cinematic gay psychotics. Director Verhoeven didn't see it that way, though, insisting that by not making gayness an issue in the film that this should be seen as a positive. But it is an issue in the film -- and a prevailing one, at that. These aren't heterosexual milk maids committing all this gory mayhem, and Nick referring to Roxie (Catherine's lesbian lover) as "Rocky" calls attention to this supposed "non-issue" quite clearly. During the production, the protesters would found out where the filming locations were at beforehand, and proceeded to mercilessly hound the cast and crew by shouting and screaming, blowing whistles, and, to offset a three-hundred-foot restraining order, holding up signs to drivers-by which read "Honk if you're a 49ers fan!" And in response to the filmmakers' assertion that these liberal activists were trying to restrict their First Amendment rights to free speech and expression, they turned the tables by showing up at theatres with signs giving away the identity of the killer.
The segment Cleaning Up Basic Instinct compares the TV version to the theatrical one, and makes for rather humorous viewing, with some of the worst dubbed lines ever to afflict the aural organs since the televised airing of Beverly Hills Cop. The actors themselves didn't lend their voices to the dubbing, and their substitutes are hilariously off-tone, making a line like this come off as even more side-splitting:
Theatrical: "I think she's the fuck of the century."
TV: "I think she's the bang of the century."
(In my view, the former is profane but fitting, with the latter non-profane but repulsive.)First-rate technical expertise can't salvage a flawed script.
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originally posted: 12/28/02 11:29:36