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, as 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.
This Blu-ray release differs from the DVD release that came out a few years ago in that new titles have been generated to open the film (which is displayed with the title William Friedkin's Cruising). The side scrolling credits on the DVD, which weren't original either (the film originally had no opening credits) are gone. Likewise, the DVD featured some digital effects added to the scene where Pacino's character takes poppers in the club and starts dancing to blur the action and, presumably, give the scene a bit of a hallucinogenic feel. This effect has, thankfully, been removed from this cut. The text intro/disclaimer that has been seen on some versions of the movie is not included here, nor is the old United Artists opening logo. A few other oddball digital effects, like the added white noise during the murder in the park, have also been removed.The Blu-ray:
Warner Brothers has given Cruising a 1.85.1 widescreen transfer in AVC encoded 1080p high definition taken from a new 4k scan of the original negative, with the transfer supervised and approved by Friedkin himself. Those familiar with the older DVD release will no doubt remember that that transfer was also approved by Friedkin and that it had a heavy blue tint over much of the film. While all of the night club scenes in the movie still look a little bluer than maybe they need to, and some of the outdoor nighttime scenes do as well, thankfully the rest of the film is pretty much free of that, which is a very good thing indeed. What is not a good thing, and quite questionable, is the use of some noticeable digital noise reduction in the last twenty-minutes or so of the movie, which scrubs out some of the grain, softens the picture and eats up some of the detail (you can see this in some of the caps below, #26 being the most obvious example). The strange thing is, prior to this last chunk there isn't any noticeable DNR. Overall, however, things look quite good. Colors are nice and before the DNR switch was hit, detail was pretty strong as well. There's good depth and texture to the picture and no problems with any compression artifacts or edge enhancement. The image is also very clean, showing no real print damage at all. The DNR in the later part of the presentation is irksome, however.Sound:
A new DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, again supervised by the film's director, is included on the disc with removable subtitles available in English only. An English language DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo track is also included. The 5.1 track stays pretty close to the original 2.0 mix, really only spreading out the score and the sound effects while keeping the dialogue up front in the mix. Both tracks are clean, clear and properly balanced and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion to note.Extras:
The only new extra on this disc is an audio commentary with William Friedkin and critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode. They talk right away about why the disclaimer has been removed (Friedkin felt it was ‘an ass covering that covered no ass'), where the opening scene with the surgeon was shot, some of the other locations that were used in the film, where longer versions were trimmed for the version that exists now, how the cops actually behaved on the West Side of Manhattan around the time the movie was made and how they harassed the gay community, casting the film and how some of the supporting players wound up in the movie, Friedkin's own interactions with the mobster owner of The Mine Shaft bar, some of the subliminal cuts used in the film and why they're there. Friedkin also touches on the color timing for this restoration and on shooting the explicit content in the leather bar knowing that it wouldn't get past the MPAA but hoping it would distract them from other stronger content that he wanted left in the picture. He does claim that he put ‘pure male pornography' in the original version he submitted to them and that it was done to give the MPAA something to cut. He also talks about James Franco's Interior: Leather Bar movie, talking to Franco on the phone about the missing material that has since disappeared, how Cruising was the first feature film to shoot in an actual morgue, how they got Pacino to appear in the picture and what he was like to work with and direct, protests that erupted over the film, working with NYPD detectives on this and The French Connection, the use of real police listening equipment in the film, how Friedkin didn't really like the novel that the film was based on when writing the script, Jerry Weintraub's involvement in the production, and the mechanics of making a film that is ‘deliberately unsolvable.' This is an excellent track, essential listening for anyone interested in this film and its history. Kermode keeps Friedkin on track and engaged throughout and it turns out to be a fascinating listen.
Carried over from the older DVD is a 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.
Also carried over from the DVD are the two featurettes with Friedkin, 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, which runs twenty-one-minutes, 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, the twenty-three-minute Exorcising Cruising, 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 passed.
Rounding out the supplements are the film's original theatrical, 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.
As far as the packaging goes, Arrow provides a nice slipcover for this release as well as some reversible cover art. The clear Blu-ray keepcase also contains an insert booklet containing credits for the feature, notes on and credits for the restoration, and an essay on the film by F.X. Feeney.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. Arrow's Blu-ray release carries over all of the extras from the DVD and adds a new commentary to the mix and, maybe even more importantly, presents the film in a much better transfer than the DVD did. In a perfect world we'd get the original theatrical version, the rumored deleted scenes, and some additional extras but what's here is good and, as such, comes recommended.