There's a killer in New York City. The latest victim is a college professor, stabbed multiple four times in the back, and his spree may also include the severed limbs discovered floating in the Hudson River. His target: gay men who frequent the bondage clubs that open up during the night in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. To help catch the culprit, Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) enlists fresh-faced officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino), a soft-spoken man who chuckles and politely disagrees when asked if he enjoys going down on other men. Edelson hopes the killer will be attracted to Burns based on his resemblance to the victims, while Burns jumps at the chance for a bigger assignment, unaware of what he's in for with the S&M scene.
Cruising is a notorious thriller, diving straight into the kind of homoeroticism that is almost never seen in American movies even today. Not only is it incredible that such a movie is nearing its 35th anniversary, but it's frankly some sort of miracle that the movie was made at all. Of course, director / screenwriter William Friedkin was riding the success of not only the Oscar-winning crime thriller The French Connection, but his adaptation of The Exorcist, as well, and he had a major star in Pacino. Even so, the film's unfiltered sexuality oozes through every grungy, sweaty frame, refusing to refine or shy away from the details of late-'70s gay life. It's shocking then, and it's shocking now -- not in any outrageous sense, but for its documentary-like directness.
During production, many NYC gay communities railed against the movie for painting S&M clubs as perverted. Although Steve finds his assignment increasingly torturous, Friedkin's assertion that the culture was simply a backdrop for a thriller is basically accurate. The matter-of-fact style with which Friedkin shoots the writhing, grinding club scenes is free of judgment or comment. Although there are a few crooked cops, including a creeper played by Joe Spinell, this isn't a homophobe story, either, with the police picking up tips from trans woman DaVinci (Gene Davis). During the day, Steve becomes friends with his neighbor, Ted (Don Scardino), a playwright enduring a rocky relationship with his boyfriend Gregory (James Remar). Ted serves as an example of the gay community outside the S&M scene, and one of Steve's lifelines to the outside world, along with his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen).
Instead, Friedkin focuses on the loneliness and vulnerability that Steve feels, immersing himself into an extreme and unfamiliar environment. Each time he steps onto the dance floor, walks to a dingy hotel with a fellow club-hopper, or catches someone's eye from across the room, he's potentially putting himself in the sights of a brutal murderer. Although Steve is not homophobic, he is also invariably hung up on having to immerse himself into a world soaked with a sexuality that differs from his own. When he returns home to sleep with Nancy and they have rough sex, it's open for interpretation as to which life he's mentally occupying. Later, he confronts Gregory over his verbal abuse of Ted, audible through his apartment walls. Although it could just be his desire to help Ted, there is a tinge of jealousy there as well.
Pacino plays Steve with a certain sweetness that drains away as the movie goes on. His somewhat embarrassed attempts to deal with stacks of adult magazines in his new apartment and chatter about handkerchief code give way to a steely-eyed, emotionless stare. By the third act, he's straight-up toying with his potential suspects, his emotional walls long destroyed. Sorvino displays a similar sadness as Edelstein, which contrasts Steve's attitude at first, but eventually comes to resemble it. Audiences interested in the thriller aspects of Cruising may be underwhelmed by the story's final twists and turns (anyone who's seen The French Connection should know that Friedkin prefers ambiguity), but Cruising is more about the experience, lingering and open-ended.
Cruising has custom-printed artwork with Warner Archive branding, stuck into a standard eco-friendly Amaray case. The front artwork, aside from the WA logo (replacing a "Deluxe Edition" banner), looks exactly like the old DVD. The back cover is more standardized compared to the old release. The one thing that I find slightly unusual is the change from the DVD logo on the spine and rear cover to a bold font reading "DVD."
The Video and AUdio
I don't know what the original pressed DVD looked like, but this new burn-on-demand edition, despite being a port of it, leaves something to be desired. No doubt Friedkin intended Cruising to have a cold and gritty visual style, and that's accurately conveyed on the disc, with heavy grain and pallid skin tones throughout. The print is free of damage, and most of the colors are nicely saturated, popping off the screen in the daytime scenes with a renewed vibrancy. On the other hand, black crush is prevalent throughout, which is in keeping with said saturation and intended look up to a point, but clearly crosses a line -- a scene in a video projection booth is so dark it can hardly be seen. Night sky blues also appear to be over-amped, and some artifacting can be spotted inside those inky blacks. However, the most distracting drawback is heavy aliasing throughout, particularly visible on neon signs, which I believe is probably an issue unique to this new DVD-R edition. Close-up shots generally look okay, but wider shots frequently have a distinctly ugly digital look to them, with jagged edges left and right. It also wreaks havoc with that grain from time to time -- one dimly-lit shot of Pacino entering his apartment is a swarm of grain devolving into compression artifacts. On the whole, the pluses outweigh the minuses, but I'd guess the OOP version looked better than this.
Audio is a lively Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The club atmosphere feels suitably claustrophobic, with the salacious sounds of partying and a funky soundtrack surrounding the viewer from all sides. The sound design for Cruising is almost hypnotic, luring the viewer in, and this track is an excellent representation of that effect, both in an unsettling subtle way, and in more up-front freak-out sequences. There is a bit of texture to the quality of the materials that may just be the film's age, but it fits in with the picture nicely. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and French and Spanish subtitles are provided. A fourth subtitle track is also included that is identified by my player as English, but looks like some form of French.
This disc comes with the same extras that were present on the previous edition: an audio commentary with director / screenwriter William Friedkin and two featurettes, "The History of Cruising" (21:04), and "Exorcising Cruising" (22:29, with a "Play All" option running 43:34). Although it is not mentioned on the packaging, the disc also retains the original theatrical trailer, which reveals a much more natural-looking color palette than the film itself, without the crushed blacks. This is an excellent selection of supplements with plenty of behind-the-scenes information on the production of the film and the controversy surrounding it, including Friedkin's thoughts on the film's ambiguous nature. Producer Jerry Weintraub, advisor and former police officer Randy Jurgensen (who went undercover in S&M clubs himself), and several other members of the cast and crew participate, in addition to Friedkin, although the disc is sadly missing even archival participation from Pacino, Karen Allen, or Paul Sorvino.
Cruising is nothing if not memorable, a haunting, grimy filmstrip of a movie that eagerly tests the audience's psychological limits. Based on the social and political environment of Hollywood and the period it was made, the film honestly shouldn't even exist, and yet it does, and its edge hasn't dulled at all. This new Warner Archive DVD is a mixed bag: the standard edition is out-of-print, but the DVD-R edition offers mediocre picture quality. Recommended, on the strengths of the film itself.
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