Cruising is one of the most controversial movies of the past four decades. Directed by William Friedkin of The Exorcist fame and starring the still relevant Al Pacino, the crime drama takes place during the onset of the AIDS crisis. The production was beset with protests and was cut multiple times due to repeatedly being given an X rating. After the film was released, critical reception was not kind and audience reaction was lukewarm. But how does the movie hold up in 2019?
The film centers around a serial killer who is killing gay men. Officer Steve Burns (Pacino) goes undercover in order to capture the killer. The targets seem to be those who are involved in the leather scene, but this is more heavily implied than actually stated. Actually, the movie strongly suggests the majority of gay men live in this subculture. This may be the biggest problem with Cruising.
In the early 1980s, homosexuality was still a very touchy subject. It was less taboo than it had been in previous decades, but it was still not the main subject of major motion pictures. Cruising paints a very narrow minded view of gay men of the late 1970s. They are rarely seen in a positive light. Most of the movie takes place at night in sweaty dank clubs filled with scantily clad men who are openly committing all sorts of sexual acts. Everyone seems to want to have a quick fling an noone can be trusted.
Some will cite that Cruising takes place in the leather subculture. There is even a disclaimer before the movie that states it is look at a particular group and not an indictment against all homosexuals. (Again, nothing in the movie would leave audiences to believe otherwise.) This argument does not really hold water. Friedkin seems to want audiences to believe that we are being shown a realistic look at a world few know about. Instead, the movie goes to clubs with names like “The Ramrod” and has the same thing happen at each. Men barely dressed in leather have oral sex in the background while others dance and do drugs. It is a parody that is hard to take seriously despite its subject matter. This is not a look at the gay leather scene but a look at what a straight person thinks the gay leather scene is like.
Al Pacino does not help matters. Pacino has played many great roles during his career, but one of the things he is also known for is his penchant to overact. Cruising is no different. Burns is either talking with a very soft voice that is seemingly Pacino’s attempt at being effeminate or is over the top with his histrionics. It is a weird performance that is not ever bad, but is definitely head scratching.
For most of the movie, Cruising is a typical murder mystery. There is a sameness to the characters and settings, but the film is engaging. The film moves at a nice pace that is never boring. There is some nice character development for Burns as he gets deeper into his assignment. Friedkin even manages to do some great camera work during the more well lit scenes.
The plot becomes convoluted at the end, however. The audience is never given a reason as to why the murderer has targeted his victims. The open ended nature of Cruising’s finale makes things even more difficult to understand. For a mystery to have a satisfying conclusion, the question “why?” has to be answered. In Cruising’s case, the supposed killer is introduced very late in the film. There is little build and their capture is very anticlimactic. There is also a confusing flashback scene that leads to even more questions.
If the real killer is revealed in the film’s final moments, things are even more confusing. There are some hints early, but since they are glossed over and never fully explored, it becomes more of a shock for the sake of it than a mind bending revelation. And it still does not answer why they would go after the victims they have chosen.
Cruising is an interesting look at how homosexuality has been treated in films since 1980. Gay men are no longer depicted as just leather wearing sex fiends who prey on each other. They are more than just people who are dealing with constant emotional problems. It also shows how little the erotic crime drama has changed. Cop goes undercover, may be getting too involved in their role, twist ending is still a formula used today. Cruising shows that despite some radical changes, there is still a sameness in Hollywood.