Cruising is the ultimate should-have-been movie. Director William Friedkin, free from the ego involved in making The Exorcist, where he took a trashy book and pretended it wasn’t (notice how he now spends a lot of his time claiming it isn’t a horror movie), and then rubbed your nose in the trashy elements he left in, because I guess he didn’t think you were supposed to enjoy it, Friedkin had just had the humbling failure of Sorcerer and needed to change directions. Now, instead of turning garbage into an issue movie, he decided to indulge the issue movie in filth. Brian De Palma had already failed to turn the Cruising book into a film, and made the fairly similar Dressed to Kill instead, and so Friedkin attempted to outsleaze him (something he would later perfect with To Live and Die in LA) and play with points of view and identity in his own way. The result is fractured and totally incoherent, Friedkin seems to revel in the gay club scenes, the only sequences with energy, and throw away the thriller plot in favor of muddled confusion. Those who claim there is hidden genius in the material and Pacino’s listless, awkward performance are what gives the film its quiet power, are trying too hard.
It isn’t clear whether the 40 minutes Friedkin claimed he cut out of Cruising for ratings purposes would have changed anything, all the reading I’ve done on the film seems to reveal that he was just as lost as the audience was during the editing, attempting to add possible killers as he went along, much to the chagrin of anyone trying to make sense of it all.
Cruising is the kind of film that you watch, wanting it to get better, thinking about how great a grim, sleazy thriller about the underbelly of the gay S & M scene would be, pre-AIDS, mixed with a serial killer movie dealing with the mystery villain’s self-hate and a cop’s exploration of himself as he gets deeper and deeper undercover. And yet all it manages to be is a pretty lousy police procedural, not even able to attain the homophobia so often attached to it by reactionaries who would hardly care if they knew how bad the film actually is. Personally, I’ve seen it three times, and I’ve had the exact same reaction every time, and yet I feel compelled to own it (the original theatrical cut, not Friedkin’s blue tinted/CGI re-cut that is out on DVD), knowing full well it is a major lost opportunity, made in an un-PC era that will never come around again. Imagining an update or a remake is just as depressing as picturing the proposed Oldboy: Americana, with Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp, defanged and toothless. Cruising is the kind of film that has to catch you by surprise, rarely is your excitement going to drain away faster than this; A now-shot director at the top of his game, an actor trying out new things shortly before he turned into a cartoon, and a can’t miss subject, turned into a totally uninvolving bore, you will never again be so fascinated by how unengaged you are.