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A serial killer brutally slays and dismembers several gay men in New York's S&M and leather districts. The young police officer Steve Burns is sent undercover onto the streets as decoy for the murderer. Working almost completely isolated from his department, he has to learn and practice the complex rules and signals of this little society. While barely seeing his girlfriend Nancy anymore, the work starts changing him. Written by
Tom Zoerner <Tom.Zoerner@informatik.uni-erlangen.de>
Daring, brutal, and undeserving of its negative fame.
First and foremost, Cruising is not a film about gay men in general. Friedkin explains this perfectly on the DVD -- it's a murder mystery of a cop going undercover that just happens to have a gay element in it. To those familiar with the 70s Italian giallos, Cruising is a "U.S. giallo" -- a successful combination of murder mystery, sex, alternative lifestyles and subcultures with that, and how getting into something too out of your element can affect you. Unlike the Italian giallos that often featured a gratuitous lesbian tease, Cruising gave us a masculine leather theme instead.
The controversy and protests surrounding Cruising were based on misinformation and unfairly gave the film a bad reputation, though lately many critics that originally panned it have since recanted their negative comments, finding more to appreciate about the film.
Two things factored into why people were uncomfortable with Cruising: First, the murder story was not the real reason. Frankly, they saw not effeminate stereotypes, but masculine gay men dancing, kissing, and experiencing S&M activities. When gay characters are weak and fey, many heterosexual men feel safe. They want non-threatening characters that will be kept in their place. The disclaimer that appeared before the film (that has thankfully been removed on the DVD) was to appease gay men that felt the film would be perceived as a representation of the whole gay community. If that's the case, then films like The Birdcage and TV's Will & Grace should have disclaimers as well that say not all gay men are effeminate finger-snappers that watch Desperate Housewives, are drag queens, nor are FABulous well-groomed clean-shaven cutie boys.
Second, the locations and activity in the bars was as it actually was (and still is to a degree) in many places. The characters and extras were "real" for this story -- bearded leathermen enjoying what they do, instead of buffed party circuit boys dancing to the latest diva tunes. To add to the darkness and mood of the story the bars were blasting with serious hard-driven songs by Willy DeVille, John Hiatt, Rough Trade, The Germs, The Cripples and others instead of loopy diva dance music. Some gay men as well as straight had a problem with this, thinking it was not a decent representation of what gay men "should" listen to. To date this is still one of the coolest soundtracks around, I cherish my vinyl LP copies of it.
Yes, this film was brutal. It will leave an impression on you. THAT'S A GOOD THING! It's what film is supposed to do. Amidst all this the journey of Al Pacino's "out of his element" slip into a different mindset was a great touch. It affected his whole being, his treatment of his girlfriend, his whole outlook. And it wasn't just because he got to dance with some leathermen, it was because the murder investigation he was doing was so horrifying. What, you were expecting a sweet ending? The only reasons Pacino distanced himself from this film was because footage was cut that he felt fleshed out his character better, and the protests during filming distressed him.
And think of it this way: if this were a film about lesbians, it would be hailed by hetero guys as an erotic masterpiece. But when it's about masculine gay men, it seems hard for some of them to handle it. This may sound cliché, but I know many straight guys that actually understood Cruising and have told me (on IMDb as well as in person) they thought it was quite a cool film.
After all these years, Cruising still packs a punch and does what it sets out to do: unnerve you. It's a taut thriller and a mindblower in its complexities. That's quite an achievement and while many films are forgotten, this one still seems to be well remembered no matter what. I for one love this film and think Friedkin and company deserve much praise for their effort.
The DVD released in 2007 can be considered a bit of a "director's cut" since Friedkin made some additions and changes. For a thorough article on the exact changes and where they occur, check out the magazine Video Watchdog #152, November 2009.
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