FILM / Base instincts with a low body count: Body of Evidence (18) Uli Edel (US); Dust Devil (18) Richard Stanley (UK/US)

EVERYONE involved in Body of Evidence is at pains to underline the project's artistic integrity. 'I am a great admirer of the courtroom genre,' says the director, Uli Edel. And Willem Dafoe has declared himself attracted by the prospect of wearing a suit in the movie - 'that'll be fun' - and of having a kid - 'that'll be fun.' And the explicit sex scenes with Madonna? 'That'll be interesting,' Dafoe admitted, almost as an afterthought.

Of course, few punters will be stampeding into Body of Evidence eager to see Willem Dafoe in a suit. And to be fair, the film isn't selling itself as art. It begins with a bang - a thunderstorm orchestrating an energetic bedroom workout. Alas, the male gymnast expires on the job - he had a dicky heart - leaving Madonna accused of bonking him to death. As this is not yet an indictable offence, the actual charge is of inducing heart failure by slipping cocaine in his nasal spray.

Body of Evidence would like to run on the Basic Instinct ticket - this month's Empire runs a long list of copycat scenes. Near-clones of big box- office hits aren't exactly unheard-of in Hollywood, however, and the reasons why the formula hasn't gelled here have more to do with the differences between them. For a start, while Michael Douglas was a fast-living detective tooling around town, Body of Evidence is courtroom-bound: the bits between the naughty bits are wordy and static (both films are directed by Europeans in Hollywood, but Edel doesn't have any of Verhoeven's visual flair, or his dark humour). There are the obligatory surprise witnesses, but the film doesn't bother with spectacular summing-up perorations. The trial is just a formality.

Which brings us to the script. Joe Eszterhas took flak for the seven-figure fee he received for Basic Instinct, but at least he understands great dialogue. Body of Evidence comes from a writer whose main previous credits are the dim chess thriller Knight Moves and Highlander 3. Poor Madonna, in huge close-up, has to deliver lines like 'I never know why men lie. They just do. They lie' (the film's strong on psychological motivation). The credits stipulate, Wayne's World-like, that it is NOT based on the novel by Patricia Cornwell.

The sex? Well it may be juicy for viewers who enjoy getting laid on broken glass and having hot candle-wax dripped on sensitive parts of their anatomy. We see nipple clamps, but not in situ. And, while Basic Instinct was highly ambivalent towards its rapacious heroine, and ended up attracting a strong lesbian and feminist following, this film's oddly puritanical - the revelation of one character's bisexuality is meant to be a real shocker. Even Madonna, rather unconvincingly, looks aghast.

Oh yes, Madonna. She's a little too old for the role (during the press show there was much unkind cackling at the repeated, rather desperate- sounding references to her character's youth and beauty). Shooting her through what looks like several jars of orange marmalade doesn't help.

And she's hardly a star shrouded in mystery - to be credible as a did-she-didn't-she femme fatale she needs a veil of ambiguity about her. That's why she's best in straight-arrow, bad-girl supporting roles but lacks the depth and complexity to carry a movie. She's all surface. Basic Instinct's Sharon Stone is not exactly a shrinking violet, but she had the advantage of bursting on the scene out of relative obscurity. And Verhoeven used her well - the infamous crotch- flashing scene had surprise and brevity on its side. But when you can have Madonna in Sex, why bother to see her in this movie?

Richard Stanley's Dust Devil is a mystical thriller set in Namibia shortly after the country's independence from South Africa. Here, a serial killer travels through the desert sands leaving behind a trail of ritual slayings - he seems intended as some kind of never- quite-formulated political metaphor. The film's visual antecedents are Italian westerns and horror movies (Sergio Leone out of Dario Argento), although Britain no longer has the exhibition structure for it to build into a comparable B- movie classic (it's playing for a fixed, two-week run). And, in any case, while Dust Devil looks wonderful and has some eerily effective moments (it's a great improvement over the director's first film, Hardware), the performances are too patchy and, perhaps as a result of the long, troubled production history and repeated recutting, Stanley's way with narrative is too uncertain for it to be counted a real success.

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