The film comes off as little more than a sensationalized exploitation flick.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

In 1980 Al Pacino had just come off winning performances in "The Godfather," "Serpico," "Godfather II," "Dog Day Afternoon," "...And Justice for All," and "Bobby Deerfield." Director William Friedkin had just made the successful "French Connection" and "Exorcist." You'd think the two of them would have been an ideal team to produce a hard-edged thriller. Maybe. But "Cruising" wasn't it.

The Warner Bros. press release that accompanied this disc says that the movie "makes its long-awaited DVD debut." After watching the film, one can understand why WB waited so long to issue it on disc. It wasn't like the viewing public was clamoring to see it.

Pacino has made a career of playing tough guys, criminals, and cops in movies, and "Cruising" proves no exception. This time he's a New York City policeman, Steve Burns, who goes undercover to find a serial killer. So far, so good. The problem is that the killer is methodically knocking off gays, so Burns dons the disguise of a gay man in order to ferret out his prey. Again, we might not have a problem if the movie had made any attempt to portray the gay community in a fair and reasonable light. Instead, the movie goes out of its way to depict only one small segment of New York's gay subculture, presenting it as luridly and as grimly as possible.

Written and directed by Friedkin from a book by Gerald Walker, "Cruising" attempts to do three things: (1) describe how people change; (2) show us a section of the gay subculture we probably didn't know much about; and (3) provide a good murder mystery. Unhappily, the movie fails on all three counts.

The plot is simple enough. A series of grisly murders of gay men baffles the NYC police department. The killer has stabbed all of his victims with a short knife, and Friedkin spares us none of the graphic brutality. A police captain (Paul Sorvino) assigns one of his rookie cops, Steve Burns (Pacino), to go undercover and cruise the gay underground for possible clues on the murders. The captain chooses Burns because he looks like the previous victims--they were all handsome, young, and dark-haired. The victims also had an innocent appearance, something Pacino brings off nicely. Burns is an innocent here, a stranger in a strange land, and for the purposes of this investigation, he's the bait.

The idea is that as Burns gets more involved in the gay subculture, the more fascinated and perhaps even attracted by it he becomes. Then he finds a possible suspect, tracks him down, and the movie ends. There's not much more to it than that.

So, let's take those three ideas one at a time. First, the movie supposedly shows us how people change. Well, that's a nonstarter to begin with. There is really only one character in the movie, Pacino's Burns, and any change that occurs to him is uncertain. The movie never shows him sleeping with or becoming intimate with anyone except his fiancée, Nancy (played by Karen Allen). We do see him turning down invitations and flirtations from gay men in the clubs. As he becomes more involved in the case, Nancy tells him she notices he's acting differently, but that's about it. Otherwise, Burns just seems to behave in a more surly manner as the story progresses. In "Dog Day Afternoon" Pacino played an openly gay (or openly bisexual) man; here, we never actually find out where his character lies, so to speak. Maybe what Burns sees opens his eyes to the differences in people; maybe he matures through his experience by gaining new insights or new knowledge into gay life; but since we never find out, it is hardly enough to justify this part of the movie's theme.

Second, the movie shows us a segment of the gay subculture we might not have known about before. Well, yeah. Indeed, the movie rather delights in displaying cross-dressing, sadomasochistic, street-hustling, drug-addled, heavy-leather gays gyrating, posing, and engaging in various sexual activities in dark, smoke-filled cellar nightclubs. I'd wager the film spends a third of its time just lingering on these kinds of shots, with all of the gay participants looking bleak, dour, angry, or outright hostile. I mean, there isn't a person in this picture who appears to be enjoying himself, and it could lead some viewers to form the misconception that such seething, threatening, unhappy folks fill all of gay life. In other words, viewers could misinterpret the exceptions in this movie for the rule. Worse, the movie seems to show off this underground lifestyle for no other purpose than to titillate the viewer's curiosity.

Third, "Cruising" should be a good murder mystery, but it's not. The story develops no suspense and no conflict. Despite flaunting the hideous details of each of the crimes, the film moves along at a sluggish pace, never building up much momentum or creating much tension. When Burns finally starts losing control, we're never sure why. It's like the plot just runs out of what little steam it has going. Then we get an abrupt and ambiguous conclusion that adds little to our misunderstanding of anything that went before. The real killer is AIDS, but that would come later.

The New York location shooting does makes the movie look more realistic, but to what end when the content is so blatantly repellant? The movie dwells on one of the most unsavory elements of human conduct--murder--and, unfortunately, the gay subculture gets caught up in the mix. Ultimately, "Cruising" is no ordinary serial-killer movie, Burns is no ordinary undercover cop, and the movie itself is no ordinary police procedural. If only it were.

The WB engineers remastered both the picture and the sound to make it as good as or better than it was when it first appeared in theaters. The results are generally pleasing, although I rather suspect that the filmmakers intended for a lot of the film to have a gritty look about it in the first place. The film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio fills out a 16x9 television screen, and the high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer ensures that you see everything the filmmakers intended you to see. This includes bright colors and reasonably good definition. However, the colors are not entirely natural, often intentionally geared to the bluish range, the overall tone is a bit dark, and the picture's grain can give it more than just a gritty appearance on occasion; it can look downright rough.

The audio engineers remastered the sound in Dolby Digital 5.1 so that it would seem more like a modern motion picture soundtrack. Certainly, the sonics are finely etched and the highs are excellent, with various subtle noises now arriving from the surround speakers. Note, too, though, that the upper midrange seems a bit sharp and pinched at times, and voices can be a tad hollow and nasal.

There are two major bonus items on the disc. The first is an audio commentary by director Friedkin, in which he spends most of his time merely describing the action for us. It seems rather obvious, but, then, maybe he had no serious insights into the film, either. The other item is a newly made, forty-three-minute, two-section documentary, "Making Cruising," that you can play together or as separate chapters. The segments are "The History of Cruising" and "Exorcising Cruising." For the most part, they appear to repeat much of what Friedkin says on the commentary track.

Things conclude with twenty-six scene selections but no chapter insert; a standard-screen theatrical trailer; English and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
No film starring Al Pacino is without some merit, not the least being a demonstration of his acting skills. But when these acting skills serve so little purpose, as in "Cruising," the result is still less than satisfactory. As I say, director Friedkin mentions on the commentary track that "Cruising" is about transformations in people, changes presumably everyone goes through; yet the only person who experiences any new feelings in this film is Pacino's character, and these so-called changes are uncertain at best. What we see in the movie's crime scenes are the worst, most distasteful aspects of human behavior, and what we see in the gay bar scenes is but a marginal fraction of gay life. The film comes off as little more than a sensationalized exploitation flick.


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