Cruising for a Bruising

William Friedkin’s Cruising earned nothing but controversy and bad reviews when it came out in 1980. The controversy came from a gay community that had only recently won a modicum of political respectability. Openly homosexual images and characters were almost unheard of in Hollywood films of those days, and a knife-wielding murderer preying on the promiscuous denizens of S&M leather bars hardly seemed like a good first impression.

The good news: Cruising is no longer controversial. Today, positive gay images are as common in Hollywood movies as…well, more common than they were in 1980. And judging from the invitation-only audience at the Castro where I saw Cruising last week, it’s even attained cult status in the gay community.

The bad news: It’s about to get one more bad review.

Cruising tries to be three things: a murder mystery, a character study of a young man dropped into a world in which he feels utterly alienated, and an anthropological study of a little-understood subculture. It fails on all three counts.
The story concerns a series of murders within New York’s gay S&M bar scene. Someone is picking up guys, then having sex before or while fatally knifing them. (In one scene, he actually kills a man who is going down on him. That just seems dangerous.) The police initially ignore the whole issue (that’s one thing in Cruising’s favor: It looks honestly at police hostility to gays), but political pressure forces them to take action. So they ask a young, inexperienced, heterosexual cop named Steve Burns (Al Pacino) to go underground–without badge or gun–and “attract” the killer. The idiot does it.

I think Burns is supposed to go through some sort of transformation in the course of the story, discovering a dark side of himself he didn’t know was there. But mostly, Pacino just looks confused. Confused as he eyes guys in bars but refuses their advances. Confused as he gets into a pointless fight with a friend’s jealous lover. And confused as he breaks up with his girlfriend (Karen Allen) for reasons that are never even hinted at.

The scenes with Allen show what a bad job Friedkin did on the script. Burns’ boss has told him to disappear while on this investigation, and he can’t give his lover details about the assignment. (Actually, keeping mum sounds better than saying “Honey, I’m spending the next few months picking up guys in leather bars. Hey, it’s my job.”) He keeps visiting her, and we’re never told if this is a violation of orders. In one scene, after passionate sex, he holds her and tells her he needs her badly, and she comforts him. But the next time we see her, she’s complaining that he’s become distant and he suggests breaking up. Yet we never see the relationship go bad.

Nor is Cruising much of a murder mystery. Until the last act, when his boss hands him an important document and orders him to study it, Burns barely does anything to help with the investigation. He just wanders around looking confused. Every so often the story shifts from Burns to some gay character we haven’t seen before, so we can get to know this new guy a little before he’s brutally murdered. The ending is completely unsatisfying.

Cruising probably has sentimental value for gays who look back fondly at the wild days before AIDS, when men seeking anonymous sex had nothing to fear but the occasional knife-wielding maniac. But it offers little insight into the community it allegedly explores. We never really learn what these men feel, how they reconcile their clubbing with other aspects of their lives, to what extent they have publicly come out either as gay and as S&M enthusiasts. We just get the shock value.

The film is technically sloppy, too. At one point when police are investigating a crime scene, we get a close-up of the blood-splattered murder victim’s face, his eyes frozen wide in terror. Friedkin holds the shot for so long we begin to wonder why the cops don’t notice that this dead man is breathing.

The corpse was more alive than the movie.