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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Cruising
Cruising
Warner Bros. // R // September 18, 2007
List Price: $19.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ian Jane | posted September 18, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

Based on reporter Gerald Walker's novel of the same name, William Friedkin's 1980 thriller Cruising was, and still remains, a controversial and difficult film. It's surprising, considering the rough and explicit subject matter, that a major studio financed the film and it's just as unusual that a mainstream actor like Al Pacino would play the lead - but here it is. The fact that Cruising exists in the first place makes it remarkable.

When the movie begins, a severed arm is found floating in the Hudson River. This puzzles the cops but they're able to ascertain that this is probably the work of the same person who has killed two gay men already. Unsure of who the culprit could be and without any real leads to go on, Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) brings in a young and eager cop named Steve Burns (Al Pacino) to go undercover into New York City's homosexual underground to try and lure the killer out - Steve definitely has a resemblance to the two victims, he's the right build, the right height, and has the right complexion and hair color. He'll be completely alone and he'll have to do the job unarmed, but he takes the job, explaining to his girlfriend, Nancy (Karen Allen), that it will put him on the fast track.

Burns assumes the identity of John Forbes and moves into an apartment in the area where the killer has been operating. He befriends one half of the gay couple that live next to him, Ted (Don Scardino), and begins his operation. The deeper he travels into the heavy leather subculture growing around the bars in the meat packing district of the Big Apple, the more he starts to adjust to this way of life but he's still got a job to do and the killer is very definitely still at large.

Those expecting to see Pacino go over the top, Scarface style, might be disappointed that he plays things rather quietly in this film but he does do a pretty good job in the lead even if Steve isn't very well fleshed out. He does a fine job of conveying his apprehension during the early part of the film and in turn, much later in the film, once his character appears to adjust and become more comfortable in his new assumed lifestyle, he effectively portrays that important shift in a subdued and believable manner. Unfortunately, while Pacino is good (with Sorvino turning in some decent acting as well), the script has some very big problems, which hamper his work in the movie in a big way. First off is the fact that for roughly half the film, Burns doesn't really seem to be doing much investigating. One could make the argument that he's trying to explore the lifestyle in order to better fit in or make contacts but what we really see is a lot of Pacino cruising bars like The Ramrod and witnessing some fairly graphic gay sex (most of which comes courtesy of a specific segment of NYC's gay community at the time - Friedkin had actual patrons of many of these real life establishments do their thing while the cameras rolled). While this is certainly unique, it doesn't further the plot all that much nor does it do much to develop Burns' character. Things pick up towards the last half of the film but by that point it starts to feel rushed and with the finale played out as it is, the film leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

The film caused much controversy while it was being made and when it played theatrically. It fell victim to gay rights groups' protests and eventually the film wound up with a studio disclaimer playing in front of it. The sex is pretty graphic, leaving very little to the imagination and playing up the fetish aspects (just watch the 'cop night' scene) and the rough side of the lifestyle (look for the Bruno Kirby look-alike in the fisting scene!). While arguments can be made about whether or not the film is technically homophobic, the picture does portray many of the gay men as philanderers hanging out in parks and grungy bars involving themselves in all manner of unseemly activity. At the same time, Burns does confront his superior officers about forcing a confession out of a gay man who he knows is not the culprit, claiming that he doesn't want to see the guy take the rap just because he's gay. In regards to its social politics, Cruising is just as confused as it is in regards to its very ambiguous ending or its message.

As confusing as the film is in different ways, you can't help but get the impression that Friedkin was trying for something better than what he got. Obviously working with a major studio on a film that deals with this type of subject matter is going to come with a few restrictions and studio/MPAA tinkering coupled with pressure from gay groups had to have had an effect on the final product. There are moments where you can tell the film is really trying to show us how Burns has changed because of his experiences; it just never quite gets there. We see Burns and Nancy in bed together, gentle the first time, then far rougher when he's on sabbatical from his new job. Coincidence? We'll never know, as the film doesn't quite go there, it simply hints at it. Additionally, the killer's motives leave much to the imagination and while that isn't a bad thing if we're given enough to work over our own interpretations, we don't even get that - it all just sort of happens.

That said, Cruising is still worth seeing. Aside from the novelty factor of seeing a young Al Pacino being schooled by a young Powers Booth about the various handkerchief codes and how they relate to golden showers, and hanging out in gay BDSM clubs, the movie does have a few very tense scenes. The first murder is well played and the cinematography does a great job of capturing the seedy, gritty inner city locations where the film was shot. Karen Allen, just before she'd become famous for Raiders Of The Lost Ark is decent as the sympathetic woman in waiting even if her character is fairly shallow and Scardino is quite good as a friendly gay neighbor trying to finish his play while caught in an unhealthy relationship. Joe Spinnell is amazingly vile as the cop with a taste for the wild side and it's fun to spot a young Ed O'Neill (of Married With Children fame as one of the cops). The score, from Jack Nitzsche, is very unusual but it fits the film perfectly, blending in well alongside music from the likes of The Germs and Willy De Ville.

Some viewers may or may not realize that this new 'director's cut' of Cruising does differ from previous versions of the film in a few ways. The original version had no opening credits but it did have a studio disclaimer at the beginning which read:

"This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world which is not meant to be representative of the whole."

This cut now has a horizontal title scrawl to start the film off, the disclaimer is gone. Additionally, the scene where Pacino gets high and starts dancing with another man in the club (roughly fifty minutes into the movie) has had some odd blurring effects put over the top of it (likely an unsuccessful attempt to give this moment a more hallucinatory quality). Some of the club scenes appear to be a little bit longer here than they were on the VHS release and a short scene where the Stuart Richards character's unnamed roommate talks to two police officers after the arrest has been inserted. With the exception of the blurring, which feels very out of place, these changes are fairly minor and don't really hurt anything - sadly the same can't be said about the blurring effect.

The DVD

Video:

Warner Brothers has given Cruising a 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the film's original theatrical aspect ratio. Sadly, there has been some very obvious tampering to the color scheme here (or at least to the color scheme seen previously on home video, which is all this reviewer can compare it to)resulting in a film that has a strong bluish tone to it, making Pacino and some of the other performers look like they're wearing stage make up - Pacino literally looks like he's got lipstick on! That issue aside, the transfer is good. There's quite a bit of detail present in the foreground and in the background and while there is a bit of grain present in a few scenes there isn't much in the way of print damage to complain about. The black levels are fairly strong and while a few darker scenes do result in some murkiness, for the most part the night scenes and club scenes look pretty good, which makes the color tampering all the more unfortunate. This doesn't completely ruin the film, as the transfer is otherwise quite good, but if you've seen the movie before you're very likely going to notice the changes.

Sound:

Warner Brothers supplies a newly created English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix and an optional Dolby Digital Mono Spanish language dubbed track with subtitles provided in English, French and Spanish. While it would have been nice to have the original stereo track here, the 5.1 mix does sound good. Dialogue is clean and clear and there are no issues with hiss or distortion. The rears are used nicely during the club scenes where the music tends to be blaring and everything sounds like it's been properly balanced.

Extras:

Warner Brothers has done a pretty admirable job on this release in terms of the supplements, starting off with a feature length commentary track from director/screenwriter William Friedkin. This is a pretty interesting track as he talks about some of the differences in NYC since the film was shot, and what bars may or may not still be there and how, since AIDS has come into play, the whole scene has changed. He also explains that the murders in the film are based on actual murders that took place around the same time that were written up in the newspapers and how he had interviewed people who were involved in the scene at the time as well as cops who were trying to contain the drug use and casual sex that was occurring around this time. There's a bit of dead air here and there but for the most part, Friedkin's got quite a bit to say about the picture. He talks about how several people he knew or encountered influenced the characters that he wrote into the screenplay, and he explains how certain scenes were put together. He also spends a fair bit of time simply talking about what we're seeing on screen. Thankfully, Friedkin's got enough insight into the picture and the controversy surrounding it to deliver a solid dissection of his own work. He does point out how areas of Central Park were off limits to anyone who went there other than for sexual contact, and he explains character motivations here and there. He describes the dance scene as erotic, talking about how Pacino's character is sniffing amyl nitrate in order to put himself into the same heightened state that the other patrons of the bar are in. He also clearly states that Pacino's character does start to relate to the people he's met not as minority group types or anything, but simply as human beings and how he is starting to gain an emotional investment in his work, something which isn't necessarily what you want out of a cop whose supposed to be in there doing his job impartially. Again, Friedkin spends too much time simply talking about the same thing we see for this to be an invaluable commentary, but he does tell some good stories here and point out some interesting aspects of the picture that the average viewer might not pick up on, which makes this worth checking out.

From there, Friedkin shows up on camera for a two part forty-minute featurette entitled Making Cruising that covers the making of the picture. He's joined here by his producer Jerry Weintraub, production executive Mark Johnson, actors Gene Davis, Don Scardino, Jay Acovone, and James Remar and director of photography James Contner. Friedkin explains how the film came to be made in the first place, talking about how he had to update Gerald Walker's original novel to represent the leather bar subculture that was popular in the gay scene in New York at the time. The first part, The History Of Cruising (21:05), is simply that - a look at the origins, the source material, the casting and the intricacies of putting the project together and how various people wound up involved in the production. The second part, Exorcising Cruising (22:29), begins by talking about the look of the film, how they went for a monochromatic look, and how the gay community became very aware very quickly that this movie was being made. One side of the community was involved in the making of the film, but as the movie was being made, another side of that community became very, very upset about the picture and started protesting the film in the press and publicly. Protests got to be so loud and so close to the film as it was being shot that the sound tapes were being ruined, and some activists actually went so far as to sit across from the shoot with mirrors and reflectors that they used to ruin the lighting. As a result, there had to be three hundred cops on set while this was being filmed. Friedkin says in hindsight that he realizes the film was not the best foot forward you could make for acceptance of the gay community but that it was a section that definitely did exist and that to him, it was simply the backdrop for a murder mystery. From there, Friedkin does defend the ending, stating that the whole movie is about transformation, explaining the significance of that last, lingering shot of Pacino after he finishes shaving. They close by talking about the morality of the film, the violence, the importance of sound in the film, the music (the punk music in the film in particular) and last but not least, troubles with the ratings board and various reviewers and how the various participants feel about the movie overall now that some time has past.

Rounding out the supplements are the film's original theatrical trailer (check this out to see the differences in the colors between this new edition and the film's original look) presented fullframe, animated menus and chapter stops. Don't look for Pacino anywhere in the supplements, as oddly enough he doesn't show up. Neither does Karen Allen.

Final Thoughts:

Cruising is not an easy film to enjoy and it's not without its very obvious (and sometimes painful) flaws. That said, it's a rather enigmatic movie that, if nothing else, brings up some interesting questions about Pacino's character and his experiences. Warner Brothers' transfer suffers from some unusual color tampering but otherwise looks okay and the sound is nice but the best part of the release is the extra features which are plentiful and very interesting. This isn't the definitive release fans had been hoping for, but it's not one that's completely without merit either. Recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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