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.
The Video and AUdio
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.