Cruising (1980)

“How bad could it be?” Hoo boy, let me tell you….
Our Rating

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Mystery

Director: William Friedkin

Actors: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino

Year: 1980

MPAA Rating: R

Country: USA

After working my way through all the Al Pacino movies I could get my hands on, I hit a wall. There were still a few titles left, but they were all out of print and hard to find. For the past two years, I’ve had my eyes peeled for Bobby Deerfield, The Panic In Needle Park, and yes, the infamous Cruising. Of course, it was just my luck to stumble onto Cruising for a measly dollar at a Friends of the Library sale. Cringing just a little, I added it to my pile and thought, “How bad could it be?” Hoo boy, let me tell you….

I read a Playboy interview with Al Pacino that was done during the making of this debacle. He was smart, funny, and taking crap from no one. In fact, he’s one of very few people to make it through an entire Playboy interview without saying something crass or sexist (go Al!). He was, however, concerned about the level of controversy Cruising was eliciting. Already the gay community was outraged, and people were picketing the set in protest. His reason for making the movie was simple: to work with Billy Friedkin. Following the success of The Exorcist, you can bet Hollywood’s new wonder boy had plenty of pull, and that’s probably what sucked in Paul Sorvino and Karen Allen as well.

The film’s premise is straightforward enough. Following a series of gruesome murders in a fringy segment of the gay community, Police Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) asks Steve Burns (Al Pacino) to go undercover and catch the killer. All of the victims have looked just like him, so basically, he’s bait. He’s not allowed to carry a gun, and he’s not supposed to have any contact with the outside for an entire month (i.e. going home to his girlfriend at the end of the day is pretty much out). At this point most of us would say, “thanks for thinking of me, Chief, but isn’t there some filing I could do?”, but Steve just scratches his head a little, thinks about that cool promotion this will get him, and says, “Sure Boss, sign me up!”

Wait, what? What sane person would think this is a good idea? I’m not a detective, and I don’t even play one on TV, but there are so many ways for this to go wrong. How is Steve supposed to “cruise” without having sex he doesn’t want to have? And if he suddenly balks and says, “Aw, shucks, I’m not into that tonight,” what’s to prevent someone from beating the crap out of him? Most importantly, what is he supposed to do if he goes home with the killer, and the killer starts killing him?! Clearly the police department has no ability to deal with a segment of the population they do not understand. No obvious attempt is made to interview witnesses or work with the community at all. They just surrender Steve to the cause and look the other way. Good thinking boys!

For Steve, things are weird from the get-go. He immerses himself in a subset of the gay community obsessed with S&M, and most of the men look like rejects from The Village People. There are lots of handcuffs and police uniforms, but Steve is the only real officer in the bunch. The scene is awash with drugs, lewd behavior, and sex in public places, but he’s only looking out for the killer. In fact, most of the movie amounts to him looking, and by default, we have to look too—at plenty of things we might prefer not to see.

Eventually, Steve begins to get antsy. His occasional visits home are getting creepy, so he and his girlfriend (Karen Allen) decide to take a break. Now there’s nothing standing between him and the underworld, and his search for the killer takes a decidedly voyeuristic turn. Is this official police work, or is Steve getting off on the whole thing? And more alarmingly, is he just looking to catch someone—anyone—so he can go home to his promotion? Ultimately this is exactly what happens. An innocent young man is forcefully interrogated in the presence of Undercover Steve, and at some point in the midst of all this, a burly guard in seatless underpants comes in and knocks them both around. Steve has the good sense to yell, “Who is this guy? Why is he hitting me?” in absolute bewilderment, but I think the answer is clear: to make the whole situation more gay. Good grief.

The film begins with a disclaimer stating that it is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual community. It is simply a work of fiction depicting a specific segment of the gay community, and is intended for entertainment purposes only. It’s true that gays are not portrayed in an especially flattering light, but neither is anyone else. The police department looks bad, and even Al Pacino, who I affectionately refer to as “Hot Al” (lacking all his usual passion, paunchy around the edges, and sporting an icky perm) is decidedly Not Al in this movie.

The main problem is the film’s complete lack of character or plot development. What do these people think and feel? What are their motives? Why should we invest ourselves in their story? Where are the people who remind us of our friends, relatives, and co-workers? Where the heck are all the women? Steve’s neighbor is the only character with a remotely three-dimensional life, and even he gets killed.

Yes, he gets killed—after Steve supposedly catches the killer—leaving us with an ending so inscrutable you just want to bang your head against the wall. Did Steve do it, or did the killer strike again? Did Steve hook up with the neighbor, causing a fatal lover’s spat between him and his jealous partner? Did this experience cause Steve to realize his own homosexual tendencies, or does the film suggest that it somehow “turned” him? More to the point—is it over yet?


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