Combustible Celluloid
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With: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino, Joe Spinell, Jay Acovone, Randy Jurgensen, Barton Heyman, Gene Davis, Arnaldo Santana, Larry Atlas, Allan Miller, Sonny Grosso, Ed O'Neill, James Remar, William Russ, Mike Starr, Powers Boothe, James Sutorius (voices)
Written by: William Friedkin, based on a novel by Gerald Walker
Directed by: William Friedkin
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 102
Date: 02/08/1980

Cruising (1980)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Hell Bent for Leather

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Few films have been as reviled as William Friedkin's Cruising (1980). The gay community protested it during its production, critics hated it and audiences stayed away. I first looked at Cruising back in the 1980s on VHS and likewise found it repulsive. But looking at it again years later in a cleaned-up transfer, with some big city experience and some knowledge of Friedkin's work gave me a whole new perspective. Not to mention that just about every Friedkin film except The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) has been misunderstood in its own time. And, ironically, Friedkin insists that even The Exorcist has been misunderstood, since he never considered it a horror film.

Given all this, Cruising can now be ranked among Friedkin's very best films. Warner Bros. is re-releasing it in selected theaters just prior to its DVD release on September 18. Like all his work, except maybe the recent, excellent Bug, it takes place in a thoroughly researched, vividly documented sociopolitical world, in this case, the gay S&M leather bars of New York City, circa the late 1970s and early 1980s. Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is a relatively naïve cop who goes home to his girlfriend (Karen Allen) each night, but he fits a certain physical type and so he's recruited to pose as a gay man, infiltrate the bars and learn the identity of a serial killer. Many reviews have suggested that Steve is forced to confront his own homosexual tendencies, but Friedkin leaves this element totally ambiguous. Indeed, Pacino's face during these scenes registers exactly the right amount of steely guardedness and astounded curiosity. His initial, lame excuses used to fend off potential mates ("I'm with somebody," etc.) eventually fade away, but even his use of the accepted lingo registers as a wee bit panicked. It's a great, multileveled performance.

When Pacino moves into the specific universe of this subculture, it feels as if he's traversed mountains. His own life with his cuddly girlfriend is miles away. Likewise, he's cut off by the overall ineffectiveness of the police department. We learn that people impersonate cops in order to procure free sex from gay prostitutes, and when the prostitutes show up at headquarters to file a complaint, the response is 'there's nothing we can do.' Hence, no cops can be trusted in this movie. Steve's superior officer, Captain Edelson, is superbly played by Paul Sorvino, whose sad, hangdog face shows a kind of acceptance that all his work will make very little difference. In another scene, Steve meets Edelson in a pool hall with his first nibble of information, which turns out to be totally obvious and completely useless.

Perhaps the main problem that early critics had is that the murder mystery is disturbingly ambiguous. Steve may catch a killer that fits a certain bill, but not all the clues add up, and it's very clear by the end that no victory has been achieved. All this may imply that Cruising is a dreary, depressing, or even horrifying experience. On the contrary: taken as a character study, it's a gripping yarn full of dramatic dead ends and exciting breakthroughs.

Warner Home Video released their long-awaited DVD in 2007. William Friedkin provides a fascinating and much-needed commentary track. There are two featurettes and a trailer. The audio has been newly re-mastered in 5.1.

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