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MOVIE REVIEWS : Blood and Lust

TIMES FILM CRITIC

“Basic Instinct” is a reminder of the difference between exhilaration and exhaustion, between tension and hysteria, between eroticism and exhibitionism. The line may be fine, but it is real enough to separate the great thrillers from the also-rans. And “Basic Instinct” is not a great thriller.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven from a Joe Eszterhas script and starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, “Basic Instinct” (citywide) has not exactly crept into town on little cat’s feet. This story of a tough cop falling for a sultry murder suspect has been the center of an interminable string of controversies, ranging from the fury the project aroused among gay rights activists while it was being shot in San Francisco to the changes Verhoeven had to make in his cut to avoid the dread NC-17 and get a more inclusive R rating (for strong violence, sensuality, drug use and language).

But even though bisexual and lesbian characters do appear only in non-role-model roles, “Basic Instinct” feels more contemptuous of women in general than specifically anti-gay. And despite liberal amounts of both male and female nudity, the celebrated sex scenes have all the feeling and finesse of aggressive board checking in the Stanley Cup finals.

More than a lack of sensibility, “Basic Instinct” suffers from a lack of sense. A certain number of red herrings go with the genre, but Eszterhas’ celebrated $3-million script about blood and lust is so riddled with implausibilities, not to mention impossibilities, that its denouement can’t stand up to the most minimal scrutiny.

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Scrutiny, however, is something this particular director does not encourage. Because, right from the opening sequence, Verhoeven batters the audience with such insistent bravado that you’re too busy checking for broken bones to spend much time worrying about what is going wrong.

The credits are barely over before Jan De Bont’s opulent camera work is zeroing in on a couple making wild and passionate love. The woman is blond, her face conveniently hidden (the only part of her anatomy that is) by her tousled hair. Deftly she reaches under a pillow, pulls out a white silk Hermes scarf and ties her all-too-willing partner’s hands to the bedpost. A few moments later, however, she puts a firm end to his fun by producing an ice pick and filling the poor man full of holes.

Assigned to investigate, the victim being an ex-rock star and a good friend of the mayor, are the requisite odd couple cops: slick and handsome detective Nick Curran (Douglas) and his overweight, salt-of-the-earth partner Gus Moran (George Dzundza). After a detour with a sultry lesbian named Roxy (Leilani Sarelle), the pair head out to Marin County and the spectacular home of the dead man’s girlfriend, Catherine Tramell.

Played with snooty insouciance by Sharon Stone, Catherine is “Basic Instinct’s” most original character, if not exactly its most believable. Beautiful, seriously uninhibited, with the looks of a Grace Kelly ice princess and the wicked, blistering tongue of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, Catherine intimidates men without half trying. Worth $100 million in inherited money, she is also an author whose latest novel concerns, guess what, a retired rock star murdered by his girlfriend.

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Did Catherine do the deed, writing the book as the perfect alibi? Or is she being framed by a devious and despicable copycat murderer who knows just how to make her look guilty, guilty, guilty? Either way, intones a somber police expert, “you’re dealing with someone very dangerous and very ill.”

Naturally, all this intrigues our friend Nick to no end. Moreover, it turns out that he and Catherine have the kind of psychic bond that enables them to almost read each other’s thoughts. As Nick gets deeper into the investigation, more about Catherine’s past is revealed, and more about his as well, such as the reasons he’s had to seek the services, professional and otherwise, of comely police psychologist Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn).

As a beginning, this is certainly more promising than the recent spate of puny Hitchcock knockoffs like “Final Analysis” and “Under Suspicion.” Yet, like the sex between Nick and Catherine, inevitable from the moment they lay panting eyes on each other but disappointing (for the audience, at least) once it arrives, “Basic Instinct” does not turn out well in the end.

One reason is that its uniformly unsavory characters, having been established in a state of near-frenzy, have the tedious task of maintaining that extreme position for the film’s entire length. Though Stone’s ultimate tease act is at first intriguing, its lack of variety soon wears out its welcome. The same is true for Douglas’ Nick, who spends so much time drenched in anger and frustration that one begins to fear that his ever-tightening neck muscles will explode under the strain.

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If “Basic Instinct’s” characters go in too few directions, its plot goes in too many, becoming less and less plausible the more convoluted it becomes. All that is left is Verhoeven’s slam-bang directorial technique, the insistent bluster with which he slams the story points into you. Truly successful maniac-driven thrillers, running the gamut from “Psycho” to “Fatal Attraction,” always leave you with a sense of exhilaration, of having had fun on the ride. “Basic Instinct” doesn’t lift you up, it only wears you out, and while that is doubtless something, it is not nearly enough.

‘Basic Instinct’ Michael Douglas: Nick Curran Sharon Stone: Catherine Tramell Jeanne Tripplehorn: Dr. Beth Garner Leilani Sarelle: Roxy George Dzundza: Gus Moran Dorothy Malone: Hazel Dobkins

A Carolco/Le Studio Canal+ production, released by TriStar Pictures. Director Pul Verhoeven. Producer Alan Marshall. Executive producer Mario Kassar. Screenplay Joe Eszterhas. Cinematographer Jan De Bont. Editor Frank J. Urioste. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Production design Terence Marsh. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (strong violence, sensuality, drug use, language).

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