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Overall Rating

Awesome: 4.55%
Worth A Look31.82%
Average: 13.64%
Pretty Bad: 18.18%
Total Crap31.82%

1 review, 16 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"Probably the Worst Serial-Killer Thriller Ever"
1 stars

With talents like William Friedkin and Al Pacino involved, you don't expect to be rolling your eyes at the flat-out idiocity of it all.

If ever there were a filmmaker ill-suited to adapt Gerald Walker's fine 1970 novel Cruising, William Friedkin would most certainly poll near the top of the list. Here is a director who displayed in the excellent, hard-driving action pictures The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. a bona fide talent for bravura action sequences and propulsive narrative drive. Those films possessed very little in the way of emotional complexity -- each one centered itself around a fearless law-enforcement official hell-bent on busting a notorious criminal, no matter the questionable illegality of their actions in doing so -- and that was okay, because audiences were so entertained they didn't care that the purported thin line separating cop from criminal wasn't dutifully explored. Friedkin's crude but effective technique showed that he was probably best when he didn't think, but just did -- did, that is, what just came natural to him during his creative bursts of single-minded filmmaking fervor. So when he squared off against the challenging task of both writing and directing the adaptation of Cruising, he might as well have been trying to make forward progress by moving a wall. Walker's novel was an unsettling, disturbing psychological thriller that dealt with a series of gruesome murders plaguing the Manhattan area: promiscuous homosexuals being butchered and mutilated by an unknown assailant. The police enlist ten officers who resemble the physical make of the victims to go undercover as homosexuals to act as decoys, with the hope of one of them attracting the killer. The one officer the story centers on is a racist, anti-Semitic, severe homophobe who begins to frustratingly question his own sexuality in the process. In essence, he turns out to be a doppelganger of the killer, who's a racist and homophobe, as well, but also a functioning but coarse heterosexual who kills gays to metaphysically kill the gay man he fears is lurking inside him.

Like Friedkin's work in a way, Walker's was crude and pointedly direct, but it wasn't without insight -- he touched upon the insecurity almost all heterosexuals at one time have had in wondering if even so much as a smidgen of themselves were predisposed to the other side of the sexual fence. The author gave the impression of somewhat bravely implicating himself in the material, whereas Friedkin exudes the closed-off air of an artist not looking down on homosexuality, necessarily, but being oblique to the notion that anything even remotely positive could stem from it. Does this mean only a gay filmmaker could have successfully made something out of Cruising? Certainly not. But it would require one with genuine perception and empathy, one with at least a fundamental, coherent view of the material. And judging by the glaring inconsistencies that abound here, Friedkin proves he's not only outside his own written material, but outside the realm of elemental logic in regards to it. How else to explain changing the killer to a functioning homosexual? There's nothing indicative of his fighting his sexual identity, so why does he target gays, then? After first plunging his knife into a victim, he tells them, "You made me do that." Huh? What about them made him do that? The closest we get to a motivation comes from his imaginary conversations with his deceased, formerly-disapproving father, who tells his boy, "You know what you have to do," which sets him off to kill, and, again, we're baffled as to the connection Friedkin's trying to make. Was the father's disapproval pertaining to his son being gay, and is the son trying to win back his father's approval by killing men of a sexual nature the father has a seething hatred for? If so, there's no indication of any of this. In fact, we don't even know if the father knew his son was gay before passing on. Taking certain liberties with a source novel is more or less a given, but hauling in a dead father and still fouling up on your central killer's motivation takes effort, not to mention outright stupidity.

And Friedkin hasn't done himself any favors with his atrocious re-conceptualization of the cop character, who comes off as even vaguer, which is a considerable liability in that he's serving as the protagonist, our eyes and ears into the tawdry, seamy world of S&M bars and clubs and the like that the victims frequented. Gone is the back story of his having harassed gays at an off-base bar when he was in the Army; also gone is his racism, along with his seemingly asexual nature in the first half. Instead, he's been made a regular, happy-go-lucky guy with a steady girlfriend. One can easily surmise Friedkin's motivation here: using someone identifiable to lead us into the underworld of black leather and kinky sex. But even here Friedkin fouls up on making the cop's emotional transitions clear. A mere three to four short scenes after he's started his assignment, the cop's moving about in bars with men dressed in policeman's garb sucking on night sticks, and one lubing his hand up in preparation for a fisting session with a nearly naked man shackled and hanging from the ceiling. Is the cop repulsed? Does he feel the slightest bit turned on? We don't know. He doesn't move around in these places with the utmost confidence, and his body language conveys awkwardness, but this isn't a clear-cut indicator of either approval or disapproval of what he's seeing. And how far does he in fact go with the men he allows to be picked up by to see if they'll strike out at him like the killer? We don't know that, either. We see one massaging his chest in a bar, and another one under a park tunnel give him a let's-go nod before the cop walks off in his direction; but these scenes just end, we're brought up short, and the cop's emotional progression seems stunted, as if Friedkin simply didn't care. We see the cop engaging in some heavy vaginal intercourse with his girlfriend, but we don't know if he's normally this semi-rough, if he's doing so under the pretense that the rougher, the manlier he must be -- fucking away any trace of gay, if you will. A week later, the girlfriend complains about his not wanting her any more, and he replies, "What I'm doing, it's affecting me." How? Turning him off sex with women, or off sex altogether in light of what he's seeing and experiencing every night? Again, we do not know.

I'll gladly support a filmmaker who opts not to spoon-feed the audience with blatantly clear answers and cut-rate emotional readings, yet there nevertheless needs to be something to hinge our judgment on to get a reading on things, and Cruising is so amorphous and evasive in its character base that it's like we're not being able to get a mental foothold in so much as a kiddie pool. Whatever dark undercurrents were circulating throughout the novel have been rendered inert, and not only by the hoary screenplay but the equally hoary direction that'd be better suited to a cheapo horror flick. Until the killer's identity is revealed at about the two-thirds mark, we see him mostly from his backside or the chest on down, with dark glasses and an exaggerated deep voice like something emitting from the basement of a haunted house -- a boogeyman, more or less. And when Friedkin isn't needlessly prolonging a murder in a public park for the sole sake of working towards an easy "Boo!" moment, he's indulging in laughable bits of exploitation hooey, like in the scene in a private room in an adult video arcade where a victim is stabbed, and the spurting of blood and the shadow of a downward knife movement are reflected off the screen. (There's also a severed arm floating in a harbor in the very first scene that's gloriously shown again in great detail on a medical examiner's table in the next one. Just your everyday "psychological thriller," huh?) And what in the world, pray tell, does Friedkin think he's doing in the sequences near the end where the cop shadows whom he suspects is the killer right out in the open, in plain-as-day sight of the person? In the novel, the two never met -- the killer ended up going on a crazed rampage inside a bath house before being killed in self-defense; here, even after the killer reads about the murders on the front page of the newspaper, thus knowing that the police have tied the victims together and have surely put a fair amount of manpower onto the streets to crack the case, and has seen the cop on three different occasions right outside his residence and on a bus, he goes off with him into a secluded area while putting himself in a foolishly vulnerable position.

I'd be happy to report that Friedkin exhibits more brains in the thriller rather than the psychological department, that regardless of the contextual shortcomings of the screenplay, at least he succeeded in cranking up the tension until we were too worked up and over to care about the plot. But what little action there is on display has been ineptly staged and edited, just like everything else in the film. Cruising is appallingly made and boasts not a single good scene to its credit. Wait, there's one: an early scene where two sexist, homophobic cops coerce a couple of transvestites into their patrol car for some fellatio action, and, in the same shot as the camera pans right, the killer is shown passing the car and walking toward the club where he'll pick up a man he will soon kill, perfectly evokes the novel's doppelganger angle. In fact, if Friedkin were going to take such liberties from the novel such as this, why not have it where one of these cops turned out to be the killer, which would at least make some dramatic sense? Then again, this is the kind of film where the hero cop's girlfriend doesn't seem to notice anything out of the ordinary about him coming over dressed in black leather and looking like one of the Village People. Where such eye-rolling symbolisms by the likes of a gay suspect working in a steak house(!) and the cops keeping him under surveillance while cutting into bloody-rare(!) T-bones with similar-looking knives that the killer uses. Where a tall, menacing-looking black cop dressed only in a jockstrap and boots slaps a suspect around in an interrogation room to soften him up and leaves. Where the only gay character that doesn't come off as a violent scumbag is killed in a shock ending, which is supposed to implicate the cop but is wobbly because a crucial happenstance in the novel that's been omitted (the cop accidentally killing one of the decoys and mutilating the body afterward in an attempt to make it look like the killer's handiwork, which awakens something primal within him) doesn't provide the dramatic underpinning to support it. And where Al Pacino, playing the cop, gives an ineffectual, obvious performance and is sickly-looking throughout. And who can blame him? Cruising, after all, is vomitus.

Read the tantalizing novel instead -- please.

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originally posted: 01/26/05 13:01:00
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User Comments

10/14/18 Louise Why the bad reviews? It kept my attention, that's for sure! 4 stars
9/13/17 morris campbell kinky dull full of plot holes 1 stars
8/21/11 the truth in the end, has Pacino taken S&M to it's logical ultimate extent (attempted murder)? 4 stars
3/02/10 engelheart i watched a cheesy vcr version but the outcome is the same,it just does not work 2 stars
9/07/07 action movie fan somewhat inaccurate but still engrossing underbelly thriller-another daring friedkin film 3 stars
7/09/06 texantarheel123 The storyline is good...the acting is horrible 2 stars
4/10/06 mr. mike coulda been better 3 stars
6/04/05 Denise Gannon after viewing i was continually fascinated with bandanas & got flush at the sight of Crisco 5 stars
5/11/04 John so well done it actually seems more meaningful than it is - still it's so well done 4 stars
5/06/04 Daveman Incoherent, poorly shot and directed and thematically blatant. Pacino makes it worth watchi 2 stars
3/28/04 Rich Majka overlooked and misunderstood film. Would love to see the uncut version 4 stars
5/09/03 mr. Pink Thriller plot's incomprehensible and stupid, but film's interesting in some ways. 3 stars
4/08/03 Jack Sommersby Intriguing material given shoddy treatment. It's never boring yet fatally nonsensical. 2 stars
10/14/02 Charles Tatum Not as bad as you have always heard 4 stars
7/29/01 Artist Freak Bizarre, compelling, daring. Where else can you see Al Pacino naked and hog tied? 4 stars
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  08-Feb-1980 (R)



Directed by
  William Friedkin

Written by
  William Friedkin

  Al Pacino
  Paul Sorvino
  Karen Allen
  Don Scardino
  Richard Cox
  Joe Spinell

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