Cruising 1980 Movie Scene Al Pacino as Steve Burns wearing a leather jacket inside of a gay leather nightclub

Cruising [1980]

Highly underrated and largely forgotten, the movie we’re going to be talking about today raised quite a lot of dust in the early eighties. Cruising is a brooding noir thriller about a serial killer prowling the gay clubs of New York and an undercover cop trying to catch him. As you can already notice, this a movie with a lot of moving parts. Parts that are, although familiar, very intriguing. Only a master would be able to bind them all together into one coherent narrative. And, luckily, that’s exactly what happened here as the director is none other than William Friedkin.

Yes, the same guy who was responsible for The French Connection and The Exorcist but also Sorcerer. The cast is confidently led by Al Pacino reprising his role of an undercover cop from Serpico. His honest, committed and vulnerable performances adds a lot to an already great movie. It makes it nearly perfect. Cruising is a movie inspired by Gerald Walker’s non-fiction novel of the same name. The novel follows the police investigation of Bag Murders, which still remain unsolved to this day. This gives the movie an additional sense of authenticity and seriousness.

Speaking of which, this is one gloomy, foreboding, and gritty movie. The atmosphere is brooding and the setting couldn’t have been better showing us the worst that New York has to offer. Everything is given to us raw, almost documentary-style. I think that Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was a big influence. Both movies have this nihilistic vibe although Cruising does have a small light at the end of the tunnel. And sometimes the movie just shocks the viewer with a slap in the face. You’ll know what I mean when you watch the movie. The visuals work hand in hand with the ruthless murders and lack of concern by the police.

Hell, it opens with a scene where the medical examiner is berating a cop for not opening an investigation after a severed arm was found floating in the river. Last week they found a torso, this week a hand, so who knows what’s going on. And then we witness an expertly written conversation between two crooked cops. This insistence on realism and matter-of-factness immerses the viewer further into the story. Even though the story itself is quite ambiguous. While it does have a clear structure it doesn’t offer the same satisfying journey we keep seeing in other similar movies.

NYPD is in a lot of trouble. It would appear that an unknown serial killer is hunting and killing gay men visiting leather clubs. The don’t have any leads nor is this case their priority but they know the press is soon going to be on them. So, Captain Edelson comes up with a plan to send one of his men undercover to try and catch this killer. He chooses Steve Burns, a young police officer who looks like the killer’s type. Steve accepts the job not knowing just how difficult, dangerous and life-changing it’s going to be.

I feel like I could talk on and on about this movie and I’m going to in one Rabbit Reviews blogs. For now, I just want to recommend it to you. It’s interesting that we’re already nearing the end of this text and that I haven’t even mentioned all the gay stuff. Yes, Cruising is a movie featuring a lot of steamy gay scenes and sexual tension. The very word cruising means looking for a one-night stand. As you can imagine, it was quite controversial at the time of its release. And it remains so today, mostly because of its representation of the gay community. I want to say something about that. The gay community has suffered and continues to suffer a lot in our tribal society.

And yes, the gay men we see in this movie do concur with society’s stereotypical image of them. However, it’s not this movie’s obligation to show gay people in a positive light. In fact, almost all characters in the movie, especially the police, are shown in a negative light. You could argue that some of the most likable characters are actually gay or trans. What we’re talking about here are the leather or S&M clubs of New York like Minshaft or Eagle’s Nest. I want to finish this section with a quote from the lead actor Al Pacino about the clubs: “They’re just a fragment of the gay community, the same way the Mafia is a fragment of Italian-American life.”

To stay on this topic just for a little while, I have to say that those scenes in the clubs were over-the-top. They were in your face over the top but without crossing that imaginary line. So, there’s no nudity and you won’t see any dicks here. But there will be plenty of asses, foreplay, bondage, and other fun stuff. It also explores masculinity and sexuality. Finally, thought-provoking and visually impactful, Cruising is also a well-paced and relatively short movie (90 minutes). So, I urge you to check it out. If you’re looking for more of the same, take a look at Ferrara’s Fear City and Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A.

Director: William Friedkin

Writers: William Friedkin, Gerald Walker

Cast: Al Pacino, Richard Cox, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Don Scardino, James Remar, Ed O’Neill

Fun Facts: Richard Gere was Friedkin’s first choice to play Officer Burns because of his “strange, ambiguous quality”. However, once Al Pacino read the script he pursued the role and eventually got it.


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