Ned Ravine (Armand Assante) is a cop who is also a lawyer. His shtick is to make an arrest and then defend that person in court. He’s married to Lana (Kate Nelligan), who is having an affair with a mechanic named Frank (Christopher McDonald). Lana has taken out a life insurance policy on Ned, one that has a triple indemnity clause. If he’s shot on a northbound train and then falls off and drowns in a nearby stream, Lana and Frank will make a lot of money. However, Lana and Frank are not the only people who want to kill Ned Ravine. One of Ned’s former clients, Max Shady (James Remar), has just been released from prison and is seeking revenge. The main reason why Ned hasn’t figured out that everyone is trying to kill him is because he’s been distracted by the seductive Lola (Sean Young), a client who asked him to look over some legal papers and who has an improbable connection to Lana.
As you might guess by the plot and Carl Reiner’s directorial credit, Fatal Instinct is a spoof of detective movies, with the majority of the jokes being inspired by Basic Instinct, the remake of Cape Fear, Double Indemnity, and Body Heat. How much you laugh will depend on how well you know those films. There’s a scene in Ned’s office where Ned notices that Lola isn’t wearing panties. He helpfully produces a pair from inside his desk and hand them to her. In 1994, that scene was funny because Basic Instinct and whether or not Sharon Stone was aware of how her famous interrogation scene was being filmed were still a huge part of the pop cultural conversation. Today, it might just seem weird.
Carl Reiner has always been an uneven filmmaker and that trend continues in Fatal Instinct, where he tries to do to erotic thrillers what Mel Brooks did to westerns and Airplane! did to disaster films. Unfortunately, Reiner often gets bogged down by the film’s plot, which should really be the last thing anyone should be worried about when it comes to a spoof like this. Some of the jokes are funny and some of them aren’t but, because Reiner doesn’t duplicate the joke-every-minute style of a film like Airplane!, there’s a lot more time to think about the jokes that fall flat.
Fatal Instinct does have a good cast, featuring a lot of actors who probably should have become bigger stars than they did. I especially liked Kate Nelligan’s and Christopher McDonald’s performances as the two triple indemnity conspirators. Sherilyn Fenn plays Ned’s loyal secretary and seeing her give such a fresh and likable performance in this otherwise uneven film makes me regret even more that, outside of Twin Peaks, she never really got the roles that she deserved.