A film review by Jon Newman
Copyright 1992 Jon Newman
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay by Joe Esterhas
Starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone
Music by Jerry Goldsmith
Imagine SEA OF LOVE directed by Paul Verhoeven (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL). Now replace Al Pacino with Michael Douglas, whose acting here is limited to Meaningful Eye Contact. Switch out Ellen Barkin for Sharon Stone, who spends half the film naked and still can't achieve half the heat Barkin achieves by just smiling. Finally, mix in dozens of unintentionally comic music stings by the uninspired Jerry Goldsmith, plenty of gratuitous violence, and enough sex to move BASIC INSTINCT onto the softcore porn shelf. What remains? BASIC INSTINCT is a huge goose-egg of a film, a dud big enough to kill an entire film studio (this is the last film by Carolco); it's not worth watching, even for free.
The plot of BASIC INSTINCT, such as it is, starts with the grisly murder of a rock-and-roll promoter. He is stabbed with an icepick during a sex bondage act. (Naturally, we get to watch.) Suspicion gathers around his lover Carolyn (Sharon Stone), an heiress and paperback writer; her last bestseller depicted just such a murder, right down to the color of the scarf with which his hands were tied. Did she do it, or was it some copycat murderer out to get her?
Carolyn plays the role of femme fatale. In the police interrogation, her investigators frantically pantomime "hot under the collar" as she describes how she seduced the producer as research for her book, then used him later on occasion for casual sex. She spends her days befriending psychopathic murderers to get characters for her books, and her nights hanging out at impossibly decadent San Francisco clubs. What is her next book? "A cop falls for the wrong woman ... she kills him." Naturally, no cinematic cop can resist such a come-on. She and Michael Douglas spend much of the rest of the film "fucking like minks" (Michael Douglas' words) as his investigation, and her book about him, draw toward their inevitable bloody conclusions.
The rest of the plot is unworthy of even a summary. Every standard element is present: the cop-buddy, the ex-wife and girlfriend, the psychiatrist's report, the car chase, the sneering Internal Affairs investigator, as if they were checked one-by-one off a checklist for Cop Flicks. The soundtrack telegraphs every punch; wherever there might have been some danger of surprising the audience, the heavy-handed musical score kicks in well in advance. Indeed, the music seems to start just a little too soon, as if it were meant as a parody. "I didn't know this was going to be a comedy," was a common response after the screening of BASIC INSTINCT; but the film takes itself too seriously, and is too inconsistent, to succeed even as a parody.
The blame for this catastrophe lies squarely with Verhoeven. Verhoeven seems to specialize in overblown sex and violence, but he's definitely much better with violence. ROBOCOP has a gritty, hip quality which surpasses the special effects extravaganza and paper-thin plot. Sexual intrigue, as opposed to mechanical violence, requires focus on the actors rather than the stuntmen, and this is what BASIC INSTINCT sorely lacks. Verhoeven gets in one good car chase, as the cars weave around oncoming traffic on a twisty two-lane mountain road. But Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone never get a chance to do more than rehash tired cliches. They never build up any chemistry, and that is the key failing of BASIC INSTINCT.
BASIC INSTINCT does, at least, succeed as softcore pornography, and this may be its salvation at the box office. It might do even better as a video, where viewers will have more freedom to fast-forward to the "good parts." BASIC INSTINCT is just pornography, despite its "R" rating. Those looking for another SEA OF LOVE, or another BODY HEAT, will be sorely disappointed.