Play It Again: Cruising (Flop Edition #4)

Cruising

By Simon Miraudo
September 24, 2013

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up … or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line. (Hey, whatever. It fits!) This month, we’re looking exclusively at epic movie flops. 

What an odd relic of the 1980s Cruising is. Controversial enough at the time to derail director William Friedkin‘s career, thirty years later it’s considered totally benign when a Disney star films a reconstruction of its X-rated scenes. That the Disney star is renowned oddball and artiste James Franco is beside the point, or, at the very least, makes my argument less pithy. (His documentary, by the way, is called Interior. Leather Bar, and is quite interesting, but probably only for Cruising completists and those interested in exploring the boundaries of sexuality in cinema. Woah, don’t everyone rush towards it at once.)

Al Pacino stars in Cruising as Steve Burns, a rookie cop tasked with infiltrating underground gay clubs to unearth a serial killer; a plot that, rightfully, inflamed homosexual rights groups tired of having their constituents depicted on screen as perverse, abnormal miscreants who equate sex with murder. They were right to be angry. Yet, in the cold light of the 21st century, Cruising isn’t nearly as inflammatory or offensive as genuine hits Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction; thrillers that painted all bisexuals as sociopaths and all sociopaths as bisexuals. (“Gah! Their identity is fluid, and unable to be categorised in a manner that I feel comfortable with! Lock them up!”)

Cruising

I called Cruising a relic, and it quite literally is, offering us a glimpse of seedy, dangerous New York prior to its moral cleansing, predicted by Travis Bickle and enacted by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Pacino delivers a rare, softly-spoken turn; him affecting a more submissive persona than he’s perhaps ever attempted on screen. Friedkin knows what he’s doing behind the camera, and the flick effectively inspires dread and ratchets up the tension. Coming as it does at the end of the New Hollywood era, Friedkin tags an ambiguous, inexplicable ending to make the mostly conventional cop thriller that came before it seem much more artful. It kinda works.

Though not that much of a financial flop, its reputation seriously hurt both Friedkin and Pacino’s standing. All those protests and boycotts worked, though not in the way that was intended. People still saw Cruising – perhaps because of the controversy – but they hated it enough to keep away from Friedkin and Pacino’s follow-ups. It both does and doesn’t deserve that reputation. Cruising isn’t entirely homophobic. The most sympathetic character is the friendly gay playwright who lives next to Burns, played – oddly enough – by eventual 30 Rock director Don Scardino. But then, the S&M clubs Burns frequents are depicted as hellish environments that seek to claim the young cop’s innocence. As the film nears its climax, it becomes apparent Burns will have to lure the culprit with the promise of sex. We are being told that his willingness to sleep with a man is the ultimate descent into depravity. Somebody, think of the children! NB: This is, believe it or not, also the climax of Shame, an otherwise good movie from 2011. Yes, just two years ago, and not thirty.

2/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Cruising is available on Quickflix.

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