CRUISING (1980)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Cruising poster

Directed by: William Friedkin

Written by: William Friedkin

(based on the novel CRUISING by Gerald Walker)

Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Don Scardino, James Remar, Jay Acovone

I discovered CRUISING in a list of the most controversial movies of all-time. While its most likely not nearly as offensive as it was upon release (it sparked huge protests from gay rights groups), the film remains a quality serial killer thriller. Proceeding celebrated films like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and SE7EN, CRUISING has a similar suffocating atmosphere that compliments the disturbing material. Some scenes haven’t aged well, but for the most part, this is a creepy film that leaves you with something to chew on after the chilling final shot. Directed by William Friedkin (of EXORCIST and FRENCH CONNECTION fame) and headlining Al Pacino (coming off four Oscar nominations in the 70’s), the film was critically panned on its initial released (going as far as to receive three nominations at the first-ever Razzies). I’d be lying if I said that certain moments don’t come off as a little stereotypical of the gay community, but the movie doesn’t delve too long in this aspect and wisely puts the cat-and-mouse game first.

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Steve Burns is a cop bearing a striking resemblance to the victims of a depraved serial killer at large. Sent undercover by his captain, Burns assumes the identity of a homosexual man in the nightclub scene to become the next target of the madman. Burns goes into the extreme side of sexuality (S&M) in order to hopefully attract the killer. Making friends with his next-door neighbor, Burns finds himself going in too deep as the darkness of what he’s seeing begins to consume him. The killer may have taken an interest in him and the real struggle comes with bringing down the lunatic, while also being able to get back to a normal life after all this is over.

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CRUISING was far from the first serial killer thriller, but there’s a gritty nature around it that is distinctly echoed in things like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and SE7EN. There are a moments of graphic violence (one stabbing in the beginning is horrifying), but Friedkin also keeps things remarkably restrained for a good portion of the film. Apparently, the original cut was even more disturbing with about 40 minutes being cut out to secure an R rating from the MPAA. Most of those cuts probably wound up involving graphic sexuality (something that the MPAA seems more concerned over than bloody violence). Regardless of extensive cuts to the running time, the movie runs at a deliberate pace that slows to a crawl in the middle which may put some viewers to sleep. Besides this lull in the storytelling, the film does pick up very quickly in the final third. If the entire movie had maintained the high level of suspense so thick you could cut it with a knife that’s shown in quiet scenes near the ending, then I’d say CRUISING was a forgotten masterpiece.

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There are a few too many scenes of Pacino diving into the gay nightclub lifestyle, including a couple of silly dance scenes. The movie is first and foremost a serial killer mystery, but it also focuses a little too much on the natural 80’s cheese that comes with this time period. That may not make total sense when you read that sentence, but if you do wind up seeing this movie, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. The movie also takes a subtle and disturbing road in its conclusion. Lots of questions go unanswered (Friedkin admits this himself) and the result is made even more disturbing for certain plot threads not being tied up with a nice little bow on top. The final scenes of CRUISING are something that can be debated and analyzed in many different ways with varying conclusions. The truth is that nobody absolutely knows what it all means, but everybody can get their own interpretation of what they take away from it. I found the ambiguous ending to be rather haunting in a lot of ways and the final shot (added up with my interpretation up to that point) was blood-chilling.

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CRUISING is a dark and disturbing film. Friedkin has said in interviews that his wife hated him for making it, but he can understand why. This is a tough movie that leaves you with a little something to chew on. Al Pacino does a good job, which we’ve all come to expect from him as a talented actor. Friedkin directs a majority of the film in masterful fashion, even though the middle does drag. I liked the way the conclusion played out which is part of the reason I’m recommending this one so highly. It’s a divisive film that some will love and others will hate, but everybody can take something away from the ending that might result in a heated conversation on what it all means. William Friedkin has had spectacular ups and disappointing downs in his career, but CRUISING is a little-known flick that deserves more attention. It’s dated and the pacing gets a little wonky for the middle section, but it still comes very much recommended for fans of serial killer thrillers.

Grade: B+

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