The Hero’s Journey in “Basic Instinct”

Fade in: A man and a woman in bed. Both nude. A mirrored ceiling. No sound, except for heavy breathing. The woman, a blonde whose hair covers her face but not her centerfold body, straddles the man, who seems a nanosecond from the come of the century. His hands are tied to the headboard with a white silk scarf. Hermés. Class. Cut to the woman’s hand, holding an ice pick. K Mart. Tacky. Close-up: Her hand slams down repeatedly. Blood gushes in orgasmic spurts.

Basic Instinct doesn’t waste time establishing priorities. This is one charged-up erotic thriller — gory, lurid, brutally funny and without a politically correct thought in its unapologetically empty head. Still, director Paul Verhoeven’s cinematic wet dream delivers the goods, especially when Sharon Stone struts on with enough come-on carnality to singe the screen. Basic Instinct established Stone as a bombshell for the Nineties.

Stone plays Catherine Tramell, a bisexual heiress and mystery novelist. San Francisco cop Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and his partner, Gus Moran (George Dzundza), arrive at Catherine’s swank beach house — Jan De Bont’s camera makes everything look deluxe — to question her about the ice-pick slaying of her graying rock-star lover, Johnny Boz (Bill Cable). It seems Boz’s murder was copycatted from Catherine’s last novel. She insists it’s a setup, but she goes downtown with the cops, stopping only to slip into heels and something short and clingy. She wears no underwear, a detail that doesn’t escape her interrogators, who attend to each uncrossing of Catherine’s legs like overzealous gynecologists.

The interrogation scene is the film’s comic high point. The cops frown when Catherine lights a cigarette. “What are you going to do,” she asks, “charge me with smoking?” When they try to establish whether Catherine liked Boz, she responds tersely, “I liked fucking him.” It’s a cheeky beginning for Stone and the film. Before the plot thickens — congeals is more like it — she and the bristling Douglas make flinty sparring partners.

Curran, derisively nicknamed Shooter for accidentally killing two tourists while on duty, is a reformed boozer and cokehead. He drove his wife to suicide and has a shaky relationship with an improbably tarted-up police shrink, Beth Gardner (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Catherine knows this because she’s keeping a file on Curran for her next novel. The fact that the prototypes for Catherine’s books wind up dead both frightens and excites Curran. He tries some roughhouse sex with Beth (he rips off her clothes; she sucks his fingers, a la Cape Fear), but nothing will do except Catherine herself. There’s a complication: Catherine’s lesbian lover, Roxy (Leilani Sarelle), is lethally jealous. But what does Curran care? After an all-night marathon with the object of his lust, the weary cop feels born-again. Catherine describes it as merely “a pretty good beginning.” (The sex scene was trimmed by sixty-eight seconds to avoid an NC-17 rating, but enough sizzle remains to indicate that Stone did indeed work without a “crotch patch.”) Catherine the killer? Or is it Roxy? Or Beth, who had a fling with Catherine when they were at Berkeley? And why is Curran drawn to his own destruction?