Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
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.
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 — 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.
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.