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Cinema: Cop-Out in a Dark Demimonde

3 minute read
Frank Rich

CRUISING Directed and Written by William Friedkin

By making Cruising, William Friedkin was asking for trouble. This detective melodrama has something to offend almost everyone: the plot concerns a string of sex murders, and the main setting is Manhattan’s unsavory demimonde of sadomasochistic homosexual bars. Last summer, gay activists picketed Cruising’s locations, charging that the film would stir anti-gay violence. Two weeks ago, a big theater chain threatened to cancel Cruising ‘s bookings on the grounds that the film merited an X rather than its official R rating. When the movie opens nationwide this week, more protests may follow. Certainly Cruising will continue to get a bonanza of free publicity.

Is the uproar justified? Not entirely. True, Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) is up to his usual grisly tricks: the killings are gruesome, and the simulation of S-M couplings will appall many moviegoers of all sexual persuasions. Yet Cruising is not antigay, any more than a film like American Gigolo is anti-heterosexual. Friedkin repeatedly — even tediously—reminds the audience that the S-M crowd is but a small, atypical subculture within a diverse homosexual world.

The real problem with Cruising is Friedkin’s inability to deliver what should have been a brilliant thriller about sex and death. This film muffles a potentially explosive premise. In order to trap a psychopathic murderer who preys on gays, Cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) adopts a fictive homosexual identity and blends into the rough S-M scene. Gradually he zeroes in on the killer, but not without paying a weird price: Burns begins to lose his real-life grip on heterosexuality.

In the movie’s view, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Cruising’s gay protesters notwithstanding, Friedkin in fact seems to be coming out in favor of androgyny.

The film makes good on its ambitions only sporadically. Friedkin is as skilled at capturing the ways of hard-boiled cops as he is at depicting the sweaty haunts of dangerous sex. The film’s psychosexual turmoil is heightened still further by the director’s linkage of these two milieus: gays cruise in cop costumes, and off-duty cops cruise in S-M drag. Both worlds are inhabited by such fine character actors as Paul Sorvino, Richard Cox and Don Scardino.

Still, Cruising’s most crucial matters are hopelessly fouled up. As a simple detective story, the film is defeated by narrative loopholes, unconvincing plot twists and the last-minute injection of a demon who seems to have drifted in, half-baked, from The Exorcist. The psychological drama is forfeited by the handling of the central character. Though Pacino is in sensitive, even witty, form, he just does not have enough to do. Except for a few costume changes and some brief, cryptic conversations with his girlfriend (Karen Allen), his personality transformation is left undramatized. There are no scenes that clearly show Burns’ descent into a personal hell or his growing sexual ambivalence. Such sequences would have been tough to write and trying to act, but they are definitely needed. Though Cruising may go too far for some audiences as it is, it fails as a film by refusing to gofar enough.

—Frank Rich

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