Now, what I just described above, is fodder for a great film. Unfortunately, Friedkin's final product "Cruising", isn't that great film. It often forgoes the dark and compelling for the shocking and exploitative. Friedkin seems to lend as much grace and finesse to this subject that he clearly has a cursory knowledge of. Meaning of course, he lends incredibly little.What the viewer gets in essence is a clunky gay horror film in which a hesitant Pacino slowly becomes immersed in a seedy realm of the subversive gay world.
It's filmed in such a way that it feels like a gay Rome, replete with an all-consuming plague like hedonism that is meant to appall. I mean, why else would Friedkin go to such lengths to make sure the viewer gets treated a nice long fisting scene? Friedkin cuts together shots of a knife being thrust into a man's back with others of a penis being plunged into a man's butt. It is hard to not feel like Friedkin is grimly equating murder with homosexuality. This is even furthered by a certain scene in which blood is seen spurting, ejaculating, on the screen in a theater that plays gay porn. The acts of these deviants are drenched in the blood of countless men.
In fact, Friedkin seems so intent on wanting to shock that he ends up not really saying anything of substance. He really only succeeds in propagating stereotypes, fear, and that if a black man in a cowboy hat and jockstrap walks into a room with you, it would behoove you to walk out.
I find Friedkin to be one of the more fascinating figures in American cinematic history. When he hits it, he cranks it out of the park. When he misses, he not only wastes a good opportunity, he also seems to throw his shoulder out in the process. It is no wonder that after a disaster like this, it has been an uphill battle just getting himself back in the game.
There's a lot of dumb use of stereotypes; the side of Pacino's character that we should know about is underdeveloped; and some plot jumps are insulting -- to the characters and to our good sense. Eventually, you get the feeling that this foray into a controversial subculture is not really complex and considered as much as it might be another cheap horror show. And as a horror show, it's only unique because it always risks being bigoted and because it's transgressive with sexual identity. The hetero-male viewer shares Pacino's voyeuristic perspective and the female viewer is wondering about what might attract that male viewer. (Karen Allen doesn't get to do much, but she does get to try on her boyfriend's gay gear.)
Pacino begins as a sensitive undercover cop and transforms into a violent hunter, who's afraid of either his capacity for affection or his hidden drives. Somehow, his repulsion at the police abuse of a gay sex suitor is the catalytic event that makes Pacino embrace his pathology and enjoy testing the prowess of the killer inside him against that of the serial killer he's tracking. It's an emotional trigger which is not easy to believe. Easier to believe is that he's intrigued with this cruising world partly because he's testing his inclination that "nothing human is alien to me."
It should be said that although Friedkin tries to build layers of ambiguity throughout the whole film, he undercuts all that work at the end, in coaching Paul Sorvino -- who's good as the stoic police captain -- to let his last scene fill with emotional facial expressions. The captain's out-sized reaction to another murder pushes the audience too much toward one conclusion: Pacino's character, soon to be detective, has been cursed with a Joe-Estzerhas final twist.
Not sure whether what happens to this cop is meant to challenge the male egos in the audience -- as in, how close to aggressive gayness can you stay and still be heterosexual? Maybe it's supposed to show how living through excess-abandon can drive people to not care about one body from another, at least enough to let gender get in the way. Regardless, using different actors, dressed in the same gear, for the killer -- which is both confusing and a cheat in the mystery -- isn't metaphysically intriguing enough to excuse the fact that those same actors are playing the past and future victims. This seems like blaming the victims for enabling the killers, an idea that goes beyond controversial; it's sociopathic, especially since the screams of two victims electronically curlicue into pig squeals.
Great soundtrack put together by Jack Nietzsche, great sound design, proper use of Joe Spinell as human horror, interesting Powers Boothe cameo, and sordidly bizarre Bruno Kirby cameo. -- Why did Kirby want to do this? In fact, why did Friedkin or Pacino? ... This question of project choices becomes the most resonant one of the movie! Did they want to prove to themselves that "nothing human is alien to definitely brilliant but securely heterosexual artists"? Or were they being flamboyant heterosexual artists who, believing their own genius for "serious" subject matter, secretly felt they deserved their own chance to do camp?
Partially based on true events and a real-life undercover cop situation, the film is of interst on many levels. What the film lacks (to it?s credit) is lack of explanation, justification and a particular view point ? leaving viewers to make their own views on the film itself.
I think this film is of interest more as a controversial piece than perhaps just it?s storyline, but one that was an interesting watch, suggestion and subliminal messaging are key behind it?s non graphic impact.
Moments of confusion from the story can be easily cleared up by the Special Features, which are worth taking a look at.
So maybe this did a little damage when it was first released, back in simpler (read: dumber) times, but these days it's an obscure film unlikely to be found by anyone who wouldn't know better. I can't imagine a bunch of fratboys picking it up at Blockbuster looking for a dated Pacino thriller and consequently learning that faggots dress up in policeman uniforms and lick each others' nipples.
As a film, Cruising is entertaining. Pacino is decent, the mystery engages and the cinematography is surprisingly lush. There's even a little bit of juicy internal conflict, if that's your thing. It's really nothing special, though, save for its role in gay film history. Also interesting is that it doesn't address the AIDS epidemic at all, arriving about a year before its discovery. Viewing it in retrospect gives it this new, increasingly sinister light.
What's most striking and controversial about "Cruising" is its depiction of the leather and S & M scene which Edelson explicitly states is not part of the gay mainstream.(The movie also makes a point of showing gay relationships, so it's not just about the sex.) What's especially troubling(along with the problematic ending) is how much the sexual activity is ascribed, like the killer's motive, to self-loathing which can be partially explained away by society's homophobia but not entirely while excusing the pleasure principle of activities that may be hard for an outsider to fully comprehend. Regardless, the film was made at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic which changed everything and, five years later, this could have made for an intriguing AIDS metaphor. At any time, it is unique to explore gay sexuality in such a graphic matter in a studio movie while in the present day it is rare for any kind of sex to be shown in a studio movie.
If you think gay men are treated badly here, the cops get worse. At best, they are ineffectual. At worse, they are openly hostile. Two cops browbeat a couple of transvestites into giving them blow jobs while the killer walks calmly by to claim another victim. Their complaints are repeatedly dismissed by other detectives including Captain Edelson. So much for community relations.
Beginning with part of a body being found in the Hudson River, "Cruising" expresses a dark reality where decaying bodies get found, examined, and there are no suspects. As the opening sequences begin, we're introduced to police officers in the 6th precinct who rattle off remarks about the women in their lives and the gay club world around them that sound as though they could have been lifted from one of Travis Bickle's voice-overs in "Taxi Driver" (1976). "One day, this whole city is gonna explode," says Officer DiSimone right before they stop two men in drag and force them to perform sexual favors. While they two men in drag are in the squad car at the mercy of the corrupt lawmen, a killer is on the prowl. Leather and chains squeak and jingle as a mysterious man enters a shady S&M club where he picks up an Al Pacino doppelgänger. The mysterious leather-clad man proceeds to take the Pacino lookalike to a hotel where they have sex, and the mysterious man then stabs his boy-toy to death.
In Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1967), a complex variation of the Kuleshov Effect is used to express an inner thought that a character has. In "The Dawn Of Man" sequence at the beginning of "2001", one of the apes picks up a bone and uses it to smash the skull of a dead animal. During this scene, Kubrick intercuts footage of a live animal falling to the ground as though it is being hit and places it after the image of the skull being hit. The result of seeing the ape, seeing what he is actually hitting, and then seeing a live animal reacting as though it is being hit allows for the audience to infer that the ape is imagining using the bone to kill a live animal. This similar visual idea is used to graphic effect in "Cruising" during the first on-screen murder in the hotel room. As the knife enters the back of the Pacino lookalike, footage of unsimulated anal sex in extreme-closeup is intercut to express the idea that the violent act of killing the man is sexually stimulating to the perpetrator.
Enter - more than fifteen minutes into the film - Officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino) who is hoping to go up in the ranks as fast as possible. Edelson offers Burns the task of going undercover in the West Village gay S&M scene to attract the murderer who seems to have a taste for men "[in their] late twenties; hundred-forty, hundred-fifty pounds; dark hair; dark eyes." With some reluctance, Burns takes Edelson's offer - Edelson's offer and the way he presented it to Burns seems to be the first test of Burns' sexuality and masculinity. From the moment that he accepts Edelson's offer, Burns begins living a double-life that even his girlfriend (Karen Allen) isn't privy to.
To defy genre is to consciously act against audience expectations. As the film progresses, "Cruising" does just that. It's a film uniquely sure of itself, in that it never falters or disrupts the tone that the first fifteen minutes of the film effectively establish - even though the audience doesn't have a protagonist to follow. The first fifteen minutes make the threat of a serial killer seem authentic, and even though we've seen the killer's face, somehow Friedkin manages to trick the audience repeatedly with doppelgängers of heroes (if they can really be described as heroic) and villains. Were "Cruising" in the hands of a different filmmaker, after Burns is given his assignment, he might have gone through a humorous S&M 101 class where he learns a thing or two about pretending to be gay and participating within the niche culture he is about to infiltrate. Instead, we learn about Burns cover identity and the extent of his knowledge as he is given the opportunity to use it. It is not to say that "Cruising" is a humorless film, as it has some incredibly well-done comical moments, it's that the humor is reflective of the tone of the film and consistent to its message. That cohesiveness is reflected in an interrogation scene that briefly transforms into a torture sequence both comical (and morally disturbing) when a gigantic black man wearing only a cowboy hat and a jock strap walks into the room and slaps Burns so hard that he falls out of his chair and has a bruise on his face in the shape of the man's palm for the remainder of the film. Within the context of the film, that particular moment of absurdist humor not only works on a comedic level, but as the scene continues it reveals the level of corruption within the police department - particularly when the gigantic black man enters the room a second time and hits the suspect, suddenly what was once funny (only a few minutes ago) is frightening (as it should be).
Friedkin, as a filmmaker, is at the top of his form in this film that combines the moral decay and suspense of "The French Connection" (1971) with the haunting visual precision of "The Exorcist" (1973). His approach to depicting the seedy culture of the S&M clubs is gung-ho in that nearly every sexual act imaginable is depicted in some way (albeit, often obstructed by a column or the shoulder of voyeuristic onlookers). Regardless, it's a bold move for the year 1980 and is still thoroughly shocking today. One of the elements that has maintained the provocative nature of these club scenes over the past thirty years is Friedkin's attraction to implicative imagery that sits on the borderline of erotic exploitation. Where contemporary filmmakers like Gaspar Noe graphically depict S&M club activity with headache inducing camera movement and loud rumbling bass with a disregard for the MPAA in "Irreversible" (2002), it's Friedkin's traditional Hollywood approach to filming a scene that makes the imagery in "Cruising" shocking in a different way. The filmmaking is honest as a camera seated on a tripod observes from Burns' point of view a man standing over another man who is reclining in a sex hammock. Friedkin then cuts back to Burns in closeup (Pacino is staring with a cold expression), and then Friedkin cuts back to the man at the sex hammock - but instead of showing the events from a realistic vantage, Friedkin shows the reverse shot in an extreme closeup of the man's hand as he lathers it up with a lubricant. Friedkin's static compositions express a different kind of reality compared to Gaspar Noe's handheld presentation of the S&M club called "The Rectum" in "Irreversible", even though the same behaviors are being exhibited in both films.
Less explicit, is the depiction of masculinity that reflects not only the homosexual club culture, but the workout culture spawned by the first two "Rocky" films (1976 & 1979). Sure, there are bulges in pants and everything else that comes with leather bars, but there are several scenes that involve the curly-haired Pacino lifting weights (a very Stallone-like image) - this particular kind of scene begins after his first exposure to the S&M culture. The importance and role of image in the kind of clubs that Friedkin portrays makes stereotypically masculine builds essential to Burns' success undercover - it's much more than just a change of wardrobe, it's a dedication to a culture that bares all.
Though "Cruising" is a film set within the gay S&M culture, it is first and foremost a thriller about a man who loses his identity and not as much a thriller about the actual pursuit of the perpetrator. The shocking presentation of the culture is constantly borderline exploitation (as opposed to being truly exploitive), as the graphic content is intended to also have an effect upon Officer Burns in addition to the audience. As Burns begins to get more sexually frustrated with his girlfriend, it's understandable that he is effected by what he has seen with his exposure and proximity to such explicit degrees of debauchery that are foreign to his own lifestyle. Specifically after the interrogation sequence, Burns begins to question why he should continue his undercover operation. From that point forward, Burns begins to truly get lost in his role as a homosexual S&M club frequenter. By the time that Burns successfully lures the murderer, the event of actually stopping him is so quick that it may be disappointing for most audiences. However, as the perpetrator heals from the knife wound that Burns inflicted upon him, corruption continues to permeate through the law as the murderer is given the opportunity to shorten his sentence if he claims to have committed similar crimes so that the police department can close a few extraneous cases. Murders continue to happen, and Burns is back with his girlfriend - but he's a changed man, even though the landscape of the film appears unchanged. The opening shot of a tugboat in the Hudson River is recreated, and the film cuts to black. How Burns is changed is a bit ambiguous, but that's what the film is about. It's not a film concerned with specifics (as the first fifteen minutes might want the audience to believe), "Cruising" is more concerned with the captivating atmosphere that creates double standards, double images, and double lives.