Dir: William Friedkin, 1980. Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen. Gay Cinema.

When it was announced that Exorcist director William Friedkin and Serpico star Al Pacino were teaming up to make a gritty, New York police thriller in 1980, nothing grabbed the attention of cinema-goers more than the idea of Cruising--especially America's gay community at the time. Immediately considered grotesque and too dark for middle America, and exploitative, and wholly offensive to everyone else with its seeming portrayal of gay men as nothing more than leather chap-wearing, bushy mustache-sporting, sadomasochistic party animals, Cruising was quickly buried in the studio vault shortly after its quick life-span in theaters. But today the film can finally be viewed and appreciated for what it is: an over-the-top, campy, cult classic with a surprisingly engaging story, and an ambiguous twist ending that will linger with you for hours afterwards.

Al Pacino stars as Detective Steve Burns, who receives an assignment to go undercover after a serial killer starts preying on New York City's gay, S&M community. Dawning tight leathers and various colored handkerchiefs in his back pocket, Burns takes to the streets and investigates the underground clubs of Manhattan's Meatpacking District (really--no pun intended). As the detective comes closer to finding his target, he starts questioning his own sexuality and violent urges--making him a loose cannon with the police department, and an enigma amongst the sub-culture that occupies his new daily life.

Shot almost entirely at night and on location at actual S&M clubs in late '70s Manhattan, Cruising offers an immensely dark snapshot of the city in its pre-Giuliani grit. Punctuated with a punk soundtrack and an amount of violence and gore akin to a horror film, it's safe to say few major studios have attempted to make anything like it since. Instead of the elaborate action sequences that made up most cop thrillers at the time, director Friedkin instead relied on mood, atmosphere, and slow pacing to create a successful psychological drama, even if its psyche can be a bit ridiculous.

Much of the dialogue in Cruising was dubbed in a studio after filming ended, as loud protests by many in the gay community plagued the making of the film. It's pretty easy to see why it received so much criticism at the time--if it doesn't show gays as leather bar-going stereotypes, the rest are either somewhat dimwitted prostitutes or just unable to form stable, meaningful relationships in their otherwise normal, upper-middle class lives. But when watching the film now it's pretty hard to take any of it too seriously, and despite Friedkin's depictions, his sympathies clearly rest on the side of the gay characters. On the recently released Deluxe Edition DVD, Friedkin passionately defends his work and insists that he accurately portrayed a specific sub-culture of the gay community--but that's ultimately up to the viewer to decide.

Either way, Cruising holds up as a fascinating and often eerie puzzle of violence and emotions. Al Pacino looks clearly uncomfortable throughout most of the movie, which could be a genuine reaction of his own to the subject material, but it brings you right into the bizarre and grimey underworld with him. This is one film you certainly won't forget soon after.

Posted by:
Paul Losada
Feb 12, 2009 12:15pm
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