Directed by: William Friedkin
Run time: 102 minutes
The Lowdown: Cruising, the third feature by William Friedkin after he made one of the scariest movies of all time, remains a cultural touchstone and a source of unrelenting scrutiny, curiosity and criticism.
The film, released in 1980, resembles a gay Frankenstein in the sense that Friedkin seems to be cobbling together a host of genre tropes, including a gritty police procedural, a taunt serial killer thriller and a lurid, exploitative descent into the rough-and-tumble sexual proclivity of male leather bars and S&M.
Unfortunately, not much works, at least as far as the police procedural and the serial killer thriller angles are concerned.
For one, Friedkin inexplicably changes the identity of the killer multiple times throughout Cruising, including the confounding conclusion that appears to reveal the undercover cop character as having been the killer all along.
Secondarily, the nuts and bolts of routine police work don’t add up. At one point, the undercover cop is brought in with a suspect for questioning and the NYPD interrogation room is transformed into a surreal mind-fuck complete with a large black man in a jockstrap who tries to intimidate the men into confessing a crime by physically assaulting them.
What works surprisingly well is Friedkin’s fascination with the tawdry peepshow booth aspect of New York’s leather community at the start of the 1980’s. Whenever his camera descends down into the basement depths of smoke-filled bars where men of all ages gyrate in all manners of dress and undress, some groping and pleasuring others, Cruising comes alive with a kinetic energy that makes you wish its overall plot was more focused.
In a way, this is reminiscent of how many Hollywood films approach fetish lifestyles. Another good example of this is 1994's Exit to Eden, which takes a hedonistic deep dive into bondage and discipline, written by Anne Rice, and makes that a secondary subplot in deference to a lame police investigation that's played for laughs. It's only during the scenes of fetish play that that film truly feels alive.
The other aspect of Cruising that’s notable is the brutal nature of the gay slayings that form the heart of the film, and propel its narrative. While the killer is broadly sketched (likely on purpose, given that his identity changes), his M.O. is chillingly specific in certain ways.
Of course, the only reason that people even bother to debate Cruising is because of its leading man, Al Pacino, who accepted this controversial role in the midst of a career highpoint, having received raves for The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon, and immediately after one of his most meme-worthy performances in …And Justice for All.
Pacino goes all-in as patrol officer Steve Burns, who is recruited by a superior (Paul Sorvino) for an undercover assignment because each victim of the suspected serial killer bears a striking resemblance to Burns.
One of the unspoken mysteries of Cruising is whether Burns is, in fact, a closeted homosexual because of how easy and how thoroughly he immerses himself in New York’s counter-culture.
There’s a lot that Cruising leaves unanswered, and the film’s third act completely falls apart once Burns identifies a possible suspect that he begins stalking himself. Burns even mimics the song that the killer sings whenever he is about to kill another victim.
Though wholly fascinating to dissect, Cruising ultimately folds under the weight of Friedkin’s ambition. It’s a curious watch today, but little more.
If you’re super interested, however, probably the better film to check out is James Franco’s 2013 Interior. Leather Bar., which reimagines a 40-minute segment of X-rated rough gay sex and fetish play that was allegedly excised from Cruising’s final cut because of its moral depravity and to protect Pacino’s image and reputation.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – No.
Nudity – Yes.
Gore – Minimal.
Drug use – Yes.
Bad Guys/Killers – Now that’s a loaded question.
Buy/Rent – Rent it.
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Jacob’s Ladder (Vertical Entertainment, 89 minutes, R, Video-on-Demand): Remakes are a tricky thing.
If an older film is beloved, the simple act of announcing a remake can create a groundswell of animosity among longtime fans.
But, if that older film isn’t well remembered or well-liked, the announcement can be met with tepid indifference, which is almost worse.
Sometimes, the movies chosen for a reimagining don’t make much sense, if only because the original was such a mind-screw to begin with that there doesn’t seem to be any new ground that a redo might cover.
I’m not sure exactly how I felt when I learned that Jacob’s Ladder, the 1990 twisty thriller from controversial director Adrian Lyne, was getting a fresh take, but after watching said remake, which substitutes Michael Ealy for Tim Robbins, I found myself thinking more about key details from the original that I had forgotten and less about the “fresh take,” which didn’t do enough to wipe my mind clean of the source material.
The new Jacob’s Ladder simply doesn’t do enough to reinvent the wheel as far as finding something new to say about the plight of poor Jacob Singer, one of the most traumatized military veterans in genre cinema.
I wanted it to be great. It wasn’t. Then I just wanted it to be good, but even that bar was a little too high for the redo to clear.
I’m pretty sure the only people who will enjoy this are those that have never seen the original.