Thursday, April 9, 2020

Reserved Seating Goes All Pacino: CRUISING

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who are undercover cops posing as writers for F This Movie!

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: This week our All Pacino series continues with William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 crime thriller Cruising, starring Al Pacino as an ambitious young cop who takes an undercover assignment in the world of late ’70s New York City S&M to catch a serial killer targeting gay men. Like most stories of undercover policemen, Pacino’s character Steve Burns gets in too deep, blurring the line between his identity and his profession. The film co-stars an underused Karen Allen as his girlfriend, Paul Sorvino as the police captain Pacino reports to, and a who’s who of bit parts from the likes of Powers Boothe, Mike Starr, Ed O’ Neill, James Remar, and Joe Spinell (was he in every NYC movie made in the ‘70s and early ‘80s?).

This was my second time seeing Cruising and once the initial shock value of it wore off from the first viewing (I’ll get to that in a minute), it made me see how thin and undercooked the movie is in its release form. I say it that way because it’s been reported that the movie was heavily edited for time and content. The biggest issue I have with the movie is it doesn’t work as a procedural or a character study. Too many scenes/details are missing and Steve Burns feels one-dimensional with a third-act insinuation that makes no sense because it’s so poorly set up. It’s also one of Pacino’s least invested performances, which doesn’t help. He seems constantly distracted, uncomfortable, self- conscious, and overcompensating, which is rare for him.
When I mentioned shock value I don’t mean that it’s a serial killer movie set in the world of gay men. More specifically what I mean is the subculture of S&M clubs mixed with violence. None of the cruising scenes are shown in a light where the men are having fun. It’s always a threatening environment, with a mood promising a violent act or confrontation. It’s similar to 8MM in that regard. All of this would be fine if the movie were like Se7en and justified the descent into depravity more. In its current form, Cruising feels to me like William Friedkin (who has made many movies I really like) exploiting a world he’s an outside observer of and (at best) doesn’t understand. The camera seems to have an agenda to make this subculture appear in the harshest light. In full disclosure, I’m uncomfortable having this discussion because it forces me into a judgmental position, but with a film like Cruising it seems unavoidable. I apologize if I worded any of that in a way anyone found offensive. It was unintentional.

What did you think of the movie?

Rob: I’ll start by echoing a lot of what you said and emphasizing that I’m going to try to come at Cruising as a standalone text and not get too sidetracked by the historical and/or social context of the film’s release. Those things are important, of course, but I wasn’t alive at this time and haven’t participated in or done extensive research about what Cruising depicts. I read a few mainstream contemporary reviews of the film and read a bit about the protests staged against its production, but I couldn’t find anything necessarily relevant to our purposes for discussion. I will repeat the old artistic adage that depiction is not endorsement or condemnation; filmmakers communicate their points of view (whether intentionally or not) through tone, plot mechanics, and characterization, and that’s what we should judge the film on. Like you, I apologize if anything I say here is offensive. This is tricky ground!

Adam: Sure is. I was equally happy you picked this for the next All Pacino (to get it out of the way) and also dreading it because I had to watch Cruising again.

Rob: With that out of the way, I want to go ahead and agree with you that — as it was released, anyway — Cruising is frustratingly undercooked and never really as compelling from a character or dramatic standpoint as it could have been. I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve seen of William Friedkin’s work, but MAN is this movie full of wasted talent! All I can do is hope that a longer cut featuring more depth and character will someday be made available to us. It’s worth noting that the film is based on the 1970 novel of the same name by Gerald Walker, and that would surely fill in some gaps for those interested.
But generally, here’s the thing about Cruising: It’s one of those movies in which the last five minutes change everything. We’re shown from the beginning that Steve Burns may be questioning his sexuality and that this undercover mission may be bringing a long-brewing interior conflict to a boil. His hunt for the killer complicates his personal life when it distances him from his girlfriend and pushes him to spend a lot of time with new neighbor Ted (Don Scardino), to whom he seems to have a physical and emotional attraction. Everything else is, as you said, very vague. Things are hinted at but never fully explored. Questions are left unanswered. That’s all completely fine! Interiority is a good thing in a character, and before the last five minutes, my only real complaint (aside from the whole “being gay doesn’t mean you’re into S&M” thing) would have been that the film missed an opportunity to use that inner conflict to add shade and texture to the story in a more tangible way.

But — and apologies for the spoilers, folks — implying in the final moments that Burns may have become a killer himself raises a thousand new questions, exposes odd flaws in the narrative, and makes Cruising capital-P Problematic in 2020. Friedkin apparently insists that the longer cut “makes the film both more and less ambiguous” as to Burns’ character and motivations, which is fine, but then why not just cut this last bit out of the release cut entirely? Without those extra bits, I agree that Cruising feels naive in a way that it never needs to be. All those scenes exploring the New York S&M underground — aside from being seedy and threatening, as you mentioned — now come off significantly more exploitative. I wasn’t watching Cruising from a heteronormative point of view, and I was judging the characters who treated these men with disrespect because I thought the film was with me on that. Now, I’m not so sure.

Adam: It’s a big problem that we don’t know where Steve Burns is coming from when we meet him. By default, we have to assume he’s just a police officer protagonist stand-in. As you said earlier, I read that the book makes it much clearer his previous biases and behavior. It’s all the more baffling because we’re introduced to two bad cops (Spinell and Starr) at the beginning of the movie when that prologue would have been better served adding detail to Pacino’s character. I think the movie fares best when it zeroes in on who the serial killer is and Pacino is tailing him. It breaks up the monotony of the first hour, where Pacino somewhat aimlessly ventures out into the S&M nightlife. I’m never quite sure how deep his character gets into this world because his “home life” scenes with either his girlfriend or Ted say there’s turmoil but Pacino’s behavior undercover indicates more of an aloofness. I don’t know. This movie’s not very successful on either front.

We’ll get into it more in our reviews for Scarface and Revolution, but Pacino’s career was in a really odd place around this time. Cruising was a weird choice for Pacino, too (who reportedly sought out the project), since he’s in his late-30s at this point and coming with a certain amount of gravitas that didn’t really strike me as sexual in films like The Godfather, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, etc. I could be wrong. I wasn’t there to see if Pacino was a sex symbol in 1980. I read that Friedkin originally wanted Richard Gere for the part of Steve Burns and this is one of the rare cases where I’d say that Gere or even someone like John Travolta would have made a lot more sense. Gere has more inherent mystery and model-ness to his persona. Pacino’s casting reminds me a lot (again) of 8MM, where it’s a commercial decision to get a star people are comfortable with as an entry point to a story with darker qualities.
Rob: Agreed. Pacino has an almost asexual ambiguity to him that WOULD work if the ambiguity of the character was more clear, but since he’s mostly just Police Officer Guy, someone like Gere or Travolta would create more of a contrast between the archetypal character model and the world they’re exploring. Honestly, the secret weapon here would have been more Karen Allen. She and Pacino never have real opportunities to play off of or challenge each other in close quarters, which robs us of one of Pacino’s key strengths as an actor. I hate to argue for a more “conventional” approach to plotting (especially in a movie from this period), but if there had been a more dynamic struggle between Pacino’s “home life” (Allen) and the hunt for the killer, a lot of the gaps in characterization may have been filled in. Friedkin is honestly a better filmmaker than that, so I can understand why he might have wanted more of a mood piece, but something would have been better than nothing.

Adam: I think my favorite part of the movie was when I recognized that a song I knew from Death Proof (“It’s So Easy” by Mink DeVille) was originally from Cruising.

Rob: I think my favorite part may have been Joe Spinell, honestly. Is this the first movie in this series we’ve actually found Pacino wrong for? I’m trying to remember. I mean, he’s played less interesting characters where the casting could go one way or another, but have we ever agreed he was just...not right for something else?

Adam: Maybe Author, Author or S1m0ne? Oh, before I forget. Did you laugh at the opening title card? It’s the same one as Rocky. I loved it.

Rob: I did! I went ahead and started thinking of the same effect with ridiculously long titles like To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. It would just go on and on like the Star Destroyer at the beginning of A New Hope. That was the most fun that Cruising ever got.

Anything else on this one? What’s up for next week?

Adam: Nope, I’m good. Next week we’ll be back with a review of another notorious box office bomb: Driven (remember that one?), directed by returning champ Renny Harlin and starring Sylvester Stallone. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.


  1. Even though it's not intentional I kind of like the hazy, unfocused angle of the detective story. I think more concrete storyline would have ruined it. In the same way that Al Pacino's character seems lost and confused by the case, so too does the audience get lost and confused.

    That sounds like a negative but I kind of dug it as an atypical detective story.

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  3. I wish they had been way more definitive on the ending! They could have still left it ambiguous if Pacino wanted to leave that scene or not. Either way I really like some of what this movie was going for.

  4. In its ambiguity, it's almost more of a '70s film, noir & otherwise, that woke up in 1980. I love that for it, but I'm sure it seems un-definitive, undercooked, etc., to others who are not as much into that decade of film history. But, honestly the way I ultimately read Pacino's character has a lot to do with John Rechy, who wrote THE hustler novel "City of Night" & also another novel, "Numbers," and yet another work, nonfictional, called "The Sexual Outlaw." (In fact, it was unsurprising to to learn they talked with Rechy at some point.) The transformation happening to his character almost has less to do with sex itself & far, far more to do with the shadowy, liberatory power high he's getting from cruising itself. And, I think THAT is a really important element of the film that seems almost unthinkable for lots of audiences today, regardless of their sexual identities, because old-fashioned cruising just doesn't happen like this anymore. People don't go cruising in parks like this: they use apps. There's little roleplay, little risk & danger, chance encounter & anonymity...and, the power dynamics involved, as well. That is what's happening to Pacino's character: he's being changed by his cruising experience, because it's changing how he thinks of "the job," societal roles, monogamy, etc.