CERT: 18 | DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN | STARRING: AL PACINO, PAUL SORVINO, KAREN ALLEN, RICHARD COX | RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 19TH
Inspired by a real life series of murders in New York’s gay community, William Friedkin’s Cruising was highly controversial, plagued by protests during filming and seen as shocking upon release, even after severe cuts from the censors. With this new Blu-ray release from Arrow, it’s due a reassessment.
Al Pacino stars as Steve Burns, a cop sent undercover in New York’s S&M scene to draw out a serial killer whose victims he resembles. As he spends more and more time in the leather bars, the killings continue. Cruising doesn’t pull its punches in the depiction of either the hedonistic clubs or the grisly stabbings, though in both cases, what’s depicted is what’s needed to tell the story, and nothing seems gratuitous (that’s after Friedkin had to cut 40 minutes of basically pornographic content, though he’s claimed to have originally included this to give the censors something to cut and allow the other stuff to slip through).
The controversy at the time came from gay rights activists who worried the film would portray homosexuality as a dangerous lifestyle. However, while the story being told from the perspective of a heterosexual cop means it's not the most progressive it could have been, many of the leathermen of New York were in fact involved (and served as extras in the club scenes), happy for their rarely depicted subculture to be put on screen. Plus, as Friedkin explains in the extras, all the events in the film actually happened – if not in the same order. Cruising is a truthful depiction of the dangers that threatened this community, and that’s not just the killings; it’s also very outright in its depiction of police brutality and corruption. Two officers are seen harassing crossdressers on the street, and there’s one unpleasant scene in which cops violently interrogate a suspect.
Not Burns himself, though, who’s a mercurial figure; you’re never sure how much he’s become immersed in both the fetishistic scene and the hunt for the murderer. Pacino was nervous about shooting in the S&M world, and his discomfort makes for an edgy performance that serves the film well, particularly towards the end as the narrative becomes ambiguous. Very impressive supporting turns come from Paul Sorvino, who as Burns’s boss seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, and Karen Allen as Burns’s increasingly concerned girlfriend, a feminine counter to the hyper-masculine world.
Arrow’s release features a new restoration from a 4K scan of the original negative, which comes with Friedkin’s seal of approval and looks crisp and high-def while not taking away the grime of the film’s aesthetic. Two archival featurettes explore the history of Cruising and the controversy surrounding it, and the new commentary with Mark Kermode interviewing Friedkin is particularly worth listening to for the director’s many stories about the production and the true events that inspired every scene – one of those commentaries that make you appreciate the film much more.