William Friedkin, the man behind such bad-ass gritty cop thrillers like “The French Connection” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” taps his penchant for police detective films with this highly controversial, yet half-baked Al Pacino starrer based on the novel of the same name. The title of the film is a play on words, referring to ‘cruising’ as in patrolling and also to its sexual connotation.
The film follows this strange case of floating body parts found in the Hudson river in New York city. The cops don’t know what to make of it but are somehow linking the act to that of a notorious serial killer who has off late been brutally murdering gay men after picking them up from shady gay S&M and leather nightclubs with names like ‘Ramrod’, ‘Cock Pit’ ( you get the drift..) somewhere in Greenwich village. He lurks in the shadows, wears aviator glasses, a leather peaked cap, a leather jacket. He cruises and picks up unsuspecting homosexual pleasure-seekers, takes them to some seedy motel or isolated areas, sings his signature song…”who’s here? I’m here..you’re here” and proceeds to stab them repeatedly, in the process ensuring they don’t survive!
Captain Edelson (a limping Paul Sorvino) sends Officer Steve Burns (a curly-haired Al Pacino!) on a dangerous mission as an undercover agent to try and possibly attract the killer owing to being in the same age group and physical features somewhat matching those of the victims. An initially reluctant Burns accepts the job and sets out on his task. He rents an apartment in the locality, manages to make friends with the friendly next door neighbour Ted (Don Scardino) and also manages to rub Ted's gay partner Gregory (an early James Remar!) the wrong way! The investigation commences, but things aren’t that simple for Burns, as he sees himself getting sucked into the dark underbelly of this deviant segment of the gay world, replete with seedy hangouts where sweaty, sloshed gay men indulge in kinkiest of sexual activities whilst being dressed in leather and jockstraps! Burns is clearly uncomfortable, as he attempts to fit in, trying to avoid suspicion on account of having to turn down advances!
Who is this killer? Why is he targeting gay men? Is he a crazed homophobic, who despises the gay folk and is ought to teach them a lesson by wiping out as many as he can? Several leads are followed, several suspects are tailed, but is Burns able to find his man?
Right from its inception, “Cruising” was mired in controversy. There was widespread protest from the gay community as they tried to disrupt the filming following claims that the film represented the homosexual world in a bad light. Friedkin had to add a disclaimer to the original release of the film stating that it is set in a small segment of that world which is not meant to be a representative of the whole. There were also claims that the film is “anti-gay”. Apart from showing almost all of the gay men as fetishist slobs, part of the police force is depicted as homophobic, in the way they unleash their brutality and humiliate gay suspects to force a confession out. While the degrading representation of gay people could be one of the reasons why the film was lambasted by critics on its original release, the film suffers from other technical problems too. First, there is a lot of focus on depicting too much of the sleazy side of gay nightclubs and very little time developing the characters at hand. Apparently 40 minutes of footage was taken out from the film to bring down the certification from an X rating to an R rating and it is just as well! One very important character who is also a suspect is just suddenly introduced; a couple of scenes thrown in here and there are supposed to do the character building and there’s a possible motivation depicted in a fleeting, haphazard manner, so much so that it simply fails to register and comes across as a rather dabbler job. The police procedural aspect of the film isn't very appealing either. Moreover, although there are cops exhibiting gray shades, most aren’t developed well and are quite forgettable, unlike in Friedkin’s aforementioned other films in which all the characters including the supporting ones have a lasting effect.
Then there is the problematic casting of Al Pacino. Apart from giving him that horrendous curly-haired look, the major problem is the failure on Pacino’s part to bring any kind of androgynous quality to his character, which, Friedkin had a problem with as well. Even if he is a straight undercover cop pretending to be gay, he has to do a darned good job of pretending, otherwise what’s the point! That would’ve added a versatile touch to his acting which is sorely missing. Apparently Richard Gere was Friedkin’s first choice for the role because he thought Gere would’ve delivered that kind of attribute to the character. Pacino’s Burns, though, walks, talks and acts like a tough guy in most of the scenes, thus, clearly standing out from the rest of the crowd. At one point, he smokes like Michael Corleone and in another scene he assumes the swagger of Tony Montana! It is surprising, then, that the others don’t recognize him to be an outsider. Maybe the curly hair was there just so that he could ‘look’ different. If only he acted differently as well. So, indeed, Pacino does well …but in the end he doesn’t go much beyond his usual self! Only in a couple of scenes we see the angst…the troubled, worried look on his face conveying that he is clearly not enjoying his job, as he confesses to Captain Edelson (“…not that I am afraid…it’s just that .. things are happening to me..”) and to his girlfriend Nance (Karen Allen, who, by the way, doesn’t serve any purpose in the film except for being in bed with Pacino). There is only one scene that makes it remotely clear that Burns doesn’t “want” Nance anymore. We don’t really know that until she says it out loud.
What does work on some level is Burns’ reaction to her claim! He says something like “my job..it is affecting me”. He is not supposed to tell her what his undercover operation is. So whether it is making him question his sexual preferences or whether it is taking a toll on his health is unclear. In one love-making scene between the two, midway in the film, Burns appears either disturbed or disgusted. This is where the complex trait of his character starts creeping in. It serves as a solid device for a film of this sort. There are a lot of clever scenes where Burns comes across as a rather vague individual…you don’t really know what he stands for! The equivocal nature of Pacino’s character is then the best part of this film.
There are still more positives, of course….”Cruising” isn’t a ‘bad’ film anyhow! There is also a very unsettling atmosphere in the film. New York by night appears at its grittiest best, reminding of Scorsese’s classics “Taxi Driver” and “Mean Streets”. A fair amount of suspense is built up to the climax and the final fifteen minutes including the deliciously ambiguous twist make the film stand apart from conventional cop thrillers. It is good to see Joe Spinell (Willi Cicci of ‘The Godfather’) in the role of a crooked cop, sharing screen space with his The Godfather co-actor, Pacino (He shared a scene with De Niro in “Taxi Driver”!). Some scenes in the nightclub and the murder scenes are genuinely disturbing and well directed.
“Cruising” is a film that had a lot of potential owing to a solid premise. But it only succeeds partially. If only it wasn’t such a half-hearted effort on the part of Friedkin, he would’ve had another fine Cop thriller feather in his cap to stand tall with his best films of the genre. Alas…