He’d impressed everyone with The French Connection and The Exorcist. He’d done his best to throw his career away with Sorcerer. By 1980, William Friedkin had to do something big, audacious, shocking and most of all, risky, if he was going to be relevant again. His resume after this shows he never reached those early heights of The French Connection ever again, but he certainly delivered on being big, audacious, shocking and most of all, risky, with Cruising.
It’s 1980 New York and there’s a serial killer on the loose killing gay dudes. But because this is 1980, gay dudes aren’t the delightful dandies you get on something like Modern Family today. They’re the kind who hang out in sleazy, underground clubs where everything has to be dirty, sweaty, leather clad and hidden from the rest of the world. Because he fits the description of the victims, uniformed cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is sent into deep undercover with virtually no training or experience. So deep undercover, the only person who knows is his boss, Paul Sorvino’s Capt. Edelson.
From here, it’s a pretty standard plot where the more involved in this strange, new world Steve becomes, the less black and white it and its people become. The more grey areas appear that make him choose more and more between what’s right according to the rule book, and what’s right according to being a good person.
This movie seems to be a real turning point in Pacino’s career as well. Not in a way that it indicates any rise or fall in quality, but a turning point in him physically. It’s funny to see Pacino’s almost baby face, not that different to how he looked in The Godfather, but with the gravelly voice that has defined the last couple of decades of his career.
Cruising got a lot of negative attention for gay rights groups as it was being made and it’s easy to see why. In fact, I assume things that seemed offensive then are monumentally more so now. But here’s the thing, I also think Friedkin went to some pretty extreme lengths to depict this world accurately while never judging it. The only problem is, the world he decided to depict seems like it’s built on every homophobic fear of the era. Did every single gay fella in 1980 wear leather and have a moustache?
If you take away all the mardi gras float level clichés, Cruising is a way above average thriller. Technically an 80s movie, it has 70s grime all over it and comes with that level of grit the 70s delivered so well. In 2014, New York is the setting for movies about beautiful Brooklyn hipsters trying to figure their lives out, white collar moguls, and romantic tales where every apartment is enormous and every conversation takes part on bench in Central Park on a gorgeous day.
But in the 70s, the New York of the big screen was dangerous, it was dirty, it was populated by the world’s worst people and it was trying to devour every person who had the misfortune of being stuck there. Seeing this version of New York in all of its hellish glory is by far the best thing about Cruising.