Blu-ray Review: Cruising

Released in February 1980, William Friedkin’s (The Exorcist, The French Connection) dark thriller Cruising stars Al Pacino (The Godfather) as Steve Burns, a, The twenty-something New York City cop offered the chance to earn his detective shield by going undercover in the leather bars and S&M clubs to catch a serial killer targeting homosexuals. Burns decides to take the job, telling his girlfriend, Nancy (Karen Allen, Raiders of the Lost Ark), it will put him on the fast track.  Based on the novel by Gerald Walker but heavily altered by Friedkin, it was, and remains a highly controversial film. Given the explicit subject matter, it’s a safe bet Cruising wouldn’t get made by a major studio today.

Undercover as John Forbes, Burns moves into an apartment in the area where the killer has been striking. He quickly befriends his neighbor Ted (Don Scardino), a struggling playwright, who represents the film’s one portrayal of mainstream homosexuality. Others are part of the underground, leather clad S&M set. The deeper Burns gets into this subculture, the more he adjusts. However, as the killings continue, he must stay focused on the job.

As a thriller and a police procedural, Cruising is a bit ridiculous. The idea of putting a young, inexperienced cop like Burns in the middle of an important investigation no leads, hoping that he attracts the killer because he resembles previous victims seems, foolish, and perhaps irresponsible. But, perhaps, I’m over thinking it. Some of the shortcomings in the story are overcome by the fine, surprisingly subtle performance from Al Pacino. While Steve isn’t particularly well developed as a character, Pacino manages to convey his uneasiness when he first visits the leather bars and S&M clubs. Much later, he’s clearly more at ease, having adjusted to the lifestyle and the people around him. As you might expect, Pacino portrays that shift convincingly.

No matter how good Pacino is (Paul Sorvino also turns in a strong performance as Burns’ boss Captain Edelson), Friedkin’s script is deeply flawed. First, for almost half the film, Burns doesn’t do much in the way of investigating. He checks out several bars and witnesses numerous sex acts, but it does nothing to move the plot forward. There are also numerous loose ends. Some are purposeful, some may be accidental. Chief among these is the ambiguous ending. I have to believe that a filmmaker as talented as William Friedkin was aiming for something different. Without giving away details, I’ll say that the ending has always bothered me.

Surrounded by controversy and protests from the LGBT community throughout filming in the Summer of 1979, the film was released with a studio disclaimer in front of it. Friedkin has long denied any political intent; he viewed the S&M bars as a unique backdrop for a murder mystery. Interesting or not, making a major studio film with these issues interjected was never going to be easy. Even as critics have begun to reevaluate Cruising almost forty years after its initial release, the film continues to evoke strong opinions. As a film critic and historian, I’m pleased that Arrow Video has released what William Friedkin considers the definitive version of Cruising so a new generation of viewers can assess the film.

A “brand new restoration from a 4K scan of the original camera negative supervised and approved by writer-director William Friedkin.” Presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, there are some beautiful shots of the New York skyline. The film’s original colors seem noticeably enhanced with extremely vibrant reds, greens and yellows. Outdoor sequences are brightly lit. Detail is good and an appropriate level of film grain is in evidence. Some of the darker club scenes exhibit slight crush, but some may find it difficult to see.

Though originally released in mono, the two tracks available here are DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0. The surround track gives more depth to the club scenes, separating ambient sounds and helping to highlight Jack Nitzsche’s score, when appropriate. Dialogue is clean, clear and concise throughout.

English SDH subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

  • New! Audio Commentary with Writer/Director William Friedkin and Film Critic Mark Kermode
  • Archival Audio Commentary with Writer/Director William Friedkin: From the 2007 DVD.
  • The History of Cruising (HD, 21:05) An archival featurette has Friedkin discussing the production. He explains how he didn’t use much of Gerald Walker’s book, instead he based it on two real-life cases.
  • Exorcizing Cruising (22:31) Archival featurette examining the controversy surrounding the film and its legacy.
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3:29)
  • Packaging: Reversible cover art and a booklet containing an essay by film historian F.X Feeney.

Cruising (1980)

Movie title: Cruising

Director(s): William Friedkin

Actor(s): Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino , Karen Allen , Richard Cox , Don Scardino, , Joe Spinell

Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Crime, ,

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