For the last few months I have attempted to open your eyes to films I believe that you may have missed or that I think deserve a second look. Entertaining films, that is. This week I’d to switch gears. Sometimes a film is so God awfully bad it has to be seen to be believed. Yes, there are classically bad films that have camp value like Manos: The Hands of Fate, Plan 9 From Outer Space or Barbarella. Then there are truly “trainwreck” films. 1980’s Cruising definitely qualifies.
From writer-director William Friedkin (yes the Academy award winning director of The French Connection and The Exorcist) comes a police thriller as controversial as it is nonsensical. The film was inspired by a novel of the same name written by Gerald Walker which chronicles a serial killer targeting homosexual men in the underbelly of New York’s S&M scene. Under pressure from the gay community, the NYPD send in an undercover officer to investigate. Sounds pretty standard, but the execution is stupefying bad.
The first problem is the casting of Al Pacino, or I should say casting a 39-year-old Al Pacino as a young patrolman hungry for his detective shield. Obviously, Pacino was looking for a challenge but his character and his performance are so passive. We never get a sense of what his character is thinking about his work or the gay community and the fact that he is able to navigate this world without anyone batting an eye is just one of many huge plot holes.
The film also stars Paul Sorvino as the police captain that recruits Pacino and whose idea of “research” is giving his officer a few stag magazines. As with Pacino, we never get Sorvino’s take on the case or how the department feels about using their resources in this matter. There’s a very awkward scene where a gay man confronts Sorvino about being abused by a pair of patrolmen. You would think this would lead to the involvement/support of the gay community in the investigation but instead Pacino is given no resources aside from some money and an apartment.
We are intermittently reminded of Pacino’s heterosexuality with the recurring presence of Karen Allen as his naïve girlfriend. Their scenes are painfully dull since he cannot/does not want to talk about his assignment and she’s just dutifully waiting for him to come home. The film also features a who’s who of character actors like Ed O’Neill, James Remar, Powers Booth, and William Russ.
As for the portrayal of the gay community, it’s fairly one-dimensional since the focus is just on the seedy side of casual and sadomasochistic sex. I’m sure this film was shocking for 1980 but the displays of sexual activity are mostly suggestions and innuendo. And then there’s the matter of film’s final act.
Pacino has apprehended a seemingly viable suspect and the case seems to be closed. Then we have not one but two unexplained murders. Do the police have the right killer? Is there a copycat? Is there more than one killer? Has Pacino gone too deep? There is no logical conclusion. Friedkin has been very vocal about wanting to have an ambiguous ending but instead of being challenging or thought-provoking it’s 100% WTF. Friedkin has also admitted there is close to 140 minutes of footage that was cut down to the films 102 minutes of running time. I’m guessing that the extra footage would be even more confusing.
Kevin Costner once said “It takes just as much effort and talent to make a good movie as its does a bad movie.” And he should know, #ThePostman. But Cruising is a special breed of bad movie. It’s offensive, illogical, poorly acted and staged. There’s a lot of bona fide talent both on screen and behind the camera but what we’re left with is a lot of “What If” and “What in the Hell Were They Thinking.”
PS – If anyone can explain the 90% naked black man in the interrogation room I’d be greatly appreciative. #HeadScratcher