'Cruising' (1980) DVD Review

April 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Starring Al Pacino and directed by William Friedkin, Cruising is a thriller set in the homosexual, S&M club subculture of 1970s New York. A serial killer has been going after gay men with a taste for a little of the ol’ ‘S’ and ‘M’, and Al Pacino is sent undercover to track him down.

The biggest problem with the film is that it is inevitably going to be compared to Serpico — another film starring Al Pacino as an undercover agent in New York, but set in the 60s. Although both films differ in their subject matter, the role occupied by Pacino is quite similar. This is where the comparisons end, however, as while both films are similar on a superficial level, they vary on a more important level: quality. Because Cruising isn’t anywhere near as good a film as Serpico.

It doesn’t help that the film is really quite dated by current day standards. The film wants to expose this seedy underworld of extreme gay sex but whatever impact it may have had in the 80s has dissipated by 2009. Homosexuality is now fairly well accepted and understood in our society today, so this aspect of the film isn’t particularly interesting or shocking. At the same time, with the growth of the internet and as a result of the media’s increased infatuation with sexuality, more extreme sexual behaviors such as sadomasochism no longer seem as shady or disturbing as they used to. In short, we have grown into being a more tolerant and accepting society in terms of sexual boundaries, and so Cruising‘s portrayal of homosexuality and S&M clubs seems a little ridiculous and antiquated today.

So what we are left with is a languid, rambling mess of a thriller. The serial killer’s face is revealed in the first act, ruining any sense of mystery; Al Pacino just seems to stumble around from club to club trying to gather information and make contacts, but it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. The film meanders for a while until some sort of loose connection is made to the killer, which is then, in turn, investigated; the way the film is resolved feels all very contrived and circumstantial, and the way Burns’ eventually catches the killer seems to be more through luck than with any proper police work. Apart from Burns’ minor breakdown and a subplot involving a gay couple next door to his apartment, nothing much happens.

The sole aspect of any remote interest is rooted in Al Pacino’s performance as Steve Burns, a straight man whose sense of sexual identity is gradually being brutalised by the extreme sexual behavior on show around him. Where in Serpico the film was focused on corruption from a more traditional, monetary angle, Cruising is about a corruption in sexual identity. Pacino does a very good job in portraying this kind of sexual confusion but it isn’t explored in much depth. When Burns’ has his identity crisis it not only feels a long time coming, but it’s also rather clumsily dealt with when it does happen. Burns’ relationship with his girlfriend starts to suffer as he gradually becomes less attracted to her and he, himself, becomes more distant and uncertain of himself, but it isn’t explored in great detail and there certainly isn’t enough there to pull the film out of its own mediocrity. Al Pacino does well with what he’s given in this area, but there aren’t really enough scenes which allow him to fully explore his character and what he’s going through.

All in all, Cruising is a little bit dull. There is no sense of urgency in the film as to finding out who the killer is, and Steve Burns’ sexual confusion isn’t given the emphasis it needs. The film goes out of its way to shock the audience with some fairly graphic images of sexual activity, but one gets the feeling that its trying a bit too hard. A lot of screen time is given to the inside of dark, dingy clubs with blue neon lights flashing everywhere, and men with huge handlebar mustaches, dressed in leather, gyrating against each other. It isn’t interesting; it’s boring, and it isn’t Serpico.

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