Judge Michael Nazarewycz walks into a bar...
Our review of Cruising, published September 24th, 2007, is also available.
"C'mere. I wanna show you my nightstick."
When you portray on film the fringe element of a particular group of people—whether that group is identified by race, religion, political slant, or sexual orientation—you have to be sure to make clear the people you are portraying represent only the fringe element, not the entire group. Oh wait…That's so 2013. Cruising was released in 1980. Never mind.
Facts of the Case
It's another hot summer in New York City. Making things hotter for the police is a serial killer who preys on gay men partial to the S&M subculture. With too many bodies and too few leads, Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino, Goodfellas) recruits a young cop to go undercover to get their man. That cop, Steve Burns (Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman), is bait for the killer because he fits the profile of the other victims: young and physically fit with dark hair and dark eyes. But as Burns delves deeper and deeper into into the case, he jeopardizes not only his relationship with his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen, Raiders of the Lost Ark), but his very life.
Cruising, directed by the guy who won an Oscar for the legendary cop film The French Connection, stars the guy nominated for an Oscar for his work in the legendary cop film Serpico. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty. Cruising is a film that tries hard to be good at three different things, instead of trying to be great at just one. The net result is once, twice, three times a failure.
One movie it fails to be is a good cop drama. Steve wanders from bar to bar looking for tips that will lead him to his killer. But that's it. No gritty detective work, no marathon strategy sessions about the possible next where/when, no QED—just wandering and asking and hoping to be attacked. There are many more cop shows on TV that show better detective work in a one-hour episode than this film does in almost two hours.
Another movie it fails to be is a compelling examination of the psyche of the undercover cop. Steve is not only a good looking young guy with a pretty girlfriend, he's a cop who surely has a certain amount of turn-of-the-decade machismo. And here he is—not as a volunteer but as a draftee—assigned to a case that will have him embedded in a world that cannot be farther from his own. How does this affect him as a heterosexual male? There's some vaguely implied suggestions that his lines might be blurring, but even if that were decidedly the case, the film never addresses how that affects him. Nor does it truly address how it impacts his relationship with Nancy. Instead, it takes a CliffsNotes approach with a few short visits between the two, each highlighting a greater distance between them than the one before. Yes, the distance is primarily Steve's, but Nancy doesn't put up much of a fight, suggesting the negative impact to their relationship is that he's undercover, not what he's doing undercover (which she does not know).
The third movie it fails to be is an examination of the S&M subculture in the pre-AIDS era. Okay, I withdraw the phrase "in the pre-AIDS era" only because Friedkin wouldn't have known it was pre-Aids. Still, what could have been an opportunity to delve into this world, particularly in a hateful context (the murder of gay men), in a time when homosexuality was not exactly viewed the way it's viewed today, becomes William Friedkin's soft core gay porn film. While there is no male frontal nudity or graphic sex scenes (aside from a couple of quick subliminal flashes of penetration), there is an inordinate amount of simulated gay sex of all varieties. These sex acts occur in all areas of each nightclub Steve visits, not just in the dark corners or back rooms, but at the bar and on the dance floor. That might be the way things were back then, but on film it's excessive to the point of shock value, not as a device to advance the plot or develop characters. And don't get me started on the preposterous ending that leaves the viewer with decisions to make instead of a clear conclusion.
Ultimately, Freidkin's greatest sin is implying the entire gay community is like the S&M subculture portrayed in Cruising. With the exception of a throwaway line from Sorvino when he first meets Pacino, and Pacino's "regular" gay neighbor (director Don Scardino) who plays a minor role in the film, there is every indication the behavior found in these bars is the typical behavior for all male same-sex couples. We're smart enough today to know better, but I doubt that was the case in 1980, and it's irresponsible filmmaking. For anyone who argues The Godfather did the same for Italian-Americans, I'd dismiss that with the argument that Italian-Americans, for decades, had been a known entity by the time Coppola's film was released. With the exception of a fringe group of bigots, people who came out of the theater having seen The Godfather knew that "Italian" did not automatically equate to "mafia." I doubt the same people could say the same about "gay," after seeing Cruising in its initial release.
There is something to be said for Al Pacino taking this role. In the 1970s, Pacino's resume included The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and others. Surely it was something of a risk for him—this mobster's mobster and cop's cop and crook's crook—to take a role that would require him to be adorned in leather, groped by other men, and, in the real WOW moment of the film (in terms of the situation combined with the actor's gravitas), find himself naked and hog-tied in leather straps on a sleazy hotel bed. Yes, when we think about actors like Michael Fassbender being "brave" for starring in something like Shame, we should also think of Pacino in Cruising.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, Warner Archive's transfer isn't awful, but it doesn't dazzle; there's has a serviceable "watching-on-HBO-in-1981" feel to it. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is crisp, mostly because a considerable portion of the film is looped. While there rarely are bonus features included on Warner's MOD (Made-On-Demand) releases, this is merely a reprint of their 2007 "Deluxe Edition" in which Friedkin was heavily involved.
* Commentary by Friedkin during which he talks at length about the making of the film.
* "The History of Cruising"—A 21 minute featurette including standard interviews with Friedkin, producer Jerry Weintraub (Diner), and many of the supporting cast (none of the top name stars appear), about how the film came to be. Friedkin and Weintraub are quick to point out they did several nights of research in the gay leather bar scene in New York, and reiterate the authenticity of the gratuitous scenes.
* "Exorcising Cruising"—Runs a little over 22 minutes and spends the first five of those covering the protests against the film by the "mainstream gay community." It also answers the question as to why so much of the film was looped—protestors made constant noise throughout shooting. There's a mention of difficulty with the MPAA, but sadly that isn't expanded on (this was the pre-NC17 days, and I would have loved to have heard about that conflict.) The rest of the short is mostly Friedkin telling us how clever he is.
* Theatrical Trailer
Unless you are a completist for all things Al Pacino, or all films from the 1980s, cruise on by.
When your film has Paul Sorvino ask Al Pacino, "Ever been porked?" there is only one verdict: Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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