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Fatal Instinct

Fatal Instinct
MGM Home Entertainment
1993 / color / 1:37 pan'n scan flat / 91 min. / Street Date April 1, 2003 / 14.95
Starring Armand Assante, Sherilyn Fenn, Kate Nelligan, Sean Young, Christopher McDonald, James Remar, Tony Randall, Clarence Clemons
Cinematography Gabriel Baristain
Production Designer Sandy Veneziano
Art Direction
Film Editor Bud Molin, Steven Myers
Original Music Richard Gibbs, Philip Giffin
Written by Daniel O'Malley
Produced by Pieter Jan Brugge, Katie Jacobs and Pierce Gardner
Directed by Carl Reiner

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Again proving he's not the greatest comedy director on the planet, Carl Reiner did this only fitfully successful sendup of noirish erotic crime films at MGM during the studio's lowest ebb - the Alan Ladd Jr. years between the Cannon boys and Mancuso.

When a studio is hungry and its future insecure, top talent and projects shy away - who wants to devote years to a show that might be shelved, or half-completed, or watch while their best work is released with a minimal marketing push? Looking for hits, MGM turned to old reliable Reiner in the hopes that David O'Malley's koo koo comedy script might be the next Airplane!

Fatal Instinct is very handsomely produced, and creatively cast with capable, if non-hot, talent. Armand Assante does the Leslie Nielsen bit, and is an earnest, deadpan buffoon. He's as physical and as handsome as they come, and he makes his dense Ned Ravine character into a droll straight man. Kate Nelligan and Sherilyn Fenn have fun with their respective treacherous wife and ultra-loyal secretary bits; even Sean Young shows finesse within the narrow range of femme fatale.

The gags are fast, dumb, and variable in their effect. Most are of the Mad magazine variety familiar from Airplane!, but they depend too much on elaborate and sometimes pointlessly literal apings from noirish hits, recent and vintage. Sean Young's Lola Kane goes through Glenn Close's every move from Fatal Attraction, and riffs on Kathleen Turner's seductions in Body Heat. Basic Instinct's no-underwear straddle is there, and so is the insane parolee bent on revenge from the remake of Cape Fear. Finally, half the plot of the classic Double Indemnity, including some of its dialogue exchanges, is tossed in for good measure. But even while working overtime with the film references, the fun wanes before the picture plays out, as it did in Reiner's earlier Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.

The idea with these parodies is to keep the jokes coming fast and furious, so that if one doesn't stick, two more are always on the way. Many are funny, and some are very funny, but over the long run, they don't yield the hilarity we're expecting. First, the Airplane! concept is a tough act to carry. The anything-goes tone creates a desperation to jump to the next gag, making everything in the film that's not a joke, throwaway effort. The format doesn't allow breaks for, say, musical numbers or even a simple chance to become attached to one of the cartoon characters, so the show is only as good as its next gag.

The filmic models Reiner and O'Malley rib are too easy, and their parodies are too obvious. In Airplane!, making fun of bad movies was a discovery of conventions and rituals we hadn't realized were there - it was an affectionate ribbing. Most of the pictures parodied here are actually good, so even when the jokes have recognition value, they often don't have a point.

Running gags like Sean Young always repeatedly getting something stuck on the bottom of her shoe wear out quickly, as does the Police Squad! nonsense of having Ned leap into an amusement park bumper car for a chase scene. Most of the sex-oriented jokes are just lame. When the jokes work, say 1/3 of the time, it's often a character-oriented bit, or good old-fashioned slapstick. The 'my sister / my daughter' riff from Chinatown dies until Sean Young tops it with a Three Stooges slap-n poke move. Ned falling off a broken barstool with perfect timing is hilarious. Sherilyn Fenn's imperturbable high spirits and yearning for Assante is consistently funny. Assante's donning a woman's red heels and dancing in the parody of the 'let's shop musical montage' is hilarious. When illicit lover Frank Kelbo (Christopher McDonald) has to sneak out of Nelligan and Assante's bedroom, spilling clinking coins and making all kinds of racket, it's the corny old Tex Avery joke, but a big laugh just the same. A peeping sparrow wakes Asssante up, of course, after much louder noises fail.

Concept & context jokes are the first to stumble. The saxophone player who crops up wailing the Body Heat-like music works once, but he keeps coming back. Cops in the background at a murder scene slip and fall repeatedly in the supposed mess of blood on the floor, but it isn't done with any finesse. How come when they get up, there's no blood on them?

One joke falls flat now for obvious reasons. Nelligan tells Assante that terrorists have seized an airliner and crashed it into the tower at the airport. "Things are really messed up there."

Savant cut home video promos for Fatal Instinct at MGM, where it had been shoved into theaters to die a quick death - MGM at the time wasn't giving its theatrical product the promotion it needed. So much of the film seemed funny then that I wanted to give it a try again. There are some good laughs, but nothing as consistently mirthful as Top Secret! or Hot Shots!. Just the same, seeing Armand Assante dance in his red high heels is almost enough to recommend the whole film.

MGM's DVD of Fatal Instinct is a pan'n scanned transfer that makes the scenes look cramped and television-like; there's some very impressive photography in this 90 minute show that's compromised by the lack of a proper widescreen aspect ratio, or 16:9 enhancement.

On the plus side, there's a commentary track with Reiner, always funnier in person, and the writer O'Malley. They explain how the original title was Triple Indemnity, and that Mel Brooks suggested the title Frontal Attraction - the consensus on the final title was that it reminded people too much of two films they'd already seen. There are also some deleted scenes in workprint form (and properly letterboxed, note) that drag in some detours to the story along with more film references, like Silence of the Lambs and Laura. The ratio of good to bad jokes in these deleted scenes is about the same, maybe a bit higher. Appearing in raw daily form are three takes of the late Dudley Moore playing Max Shady's protective mother, that are cute but easy to live without. There's an alternate Spanish track, and subs in English, Spanish and French.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Fatal Instinct rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Fair (pan scan misery)
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Deleted scenes, commentary with director and writer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 24, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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