September 24, 2007
Cruising: Third Time Out and Still Not the Charm
Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): *½; add half a star if you’re a diehard Pacino fan
Shortly before and during the time that William Friedkin was shooting Cruising, the protests from the gay movement here in New York City struck me as untimely. The movie wasn't yet made: Didn't this go against the very idea of freedom of expression? I've now seen the film three times: upon its release, later on videotape and now on DVD in its much-improved, digitally re-mastered version. Protests or no, it stinks.
Seen today, the film appears almost to have been made by a crew of beginners--which is hardly the case, given the resumes of Friedkin (who acted as both director and writer/adaptor of the Gerald Walker novel on which the film is based) and his crew. From the second scene onwards, the heavily expository dialog, coupled with some terrible acting, simply embarrasses. As the film proceeds, it becomes clear that there is little "plot" per se, almost no sense of development, and the dialog remains dead--flat, expositional, and devoid of the quirks of speech that might make it seem real. The acting is mostly on the level of bad "method" (monochromatic, dreary) and this includes, I'm afraid, the lead performance of Al Pacino. When you are given no interesting dialog to work with, acting "real" can bore the pants off the average viewer.
The look of the film is bleak, seedy and mostly devoid of color--except in the apartment of the Pacino character's girlfriend Nancy (played by Karen Allen in what may be the most thankless role of her career), about whom we never learn a thing. Oddly enough, Allen is practically the only female in the film. I don't recall another movie set in a NYC so totally devoid of women. Gays actually do have female friends, but you wouldn’t glean that fact from this movie. It's all guys, all the time, mostly gays and cops, and most of these sick and unhappy. Now, I don't mind watching a movie that's dark and bleak, but I would like to be able to find some sense and meaning to it. In scene after scene, Cruising sports an air of unreality that never lifts. Its victims are characterless, the villain is essentially a cipher with but a single characteristic (the daddy issue), and the "hero"--despite his inordinate amount of screen time--is also very nearly character-free.
As a "thriller," the movie is thrill-free, the action is ridiculous (note the fight--I use the term loosely--between Pacino and his nasty next-door neighbor), and the criminal investigation by the police looks absurd. When the lead cop played by a dour Paul Sorvino (who gives good limp) promises the serial killer a total of only eight years in prison if he'll just confess to a few more murders, you'll wonder what planet you're inhabiting. The movie does offer a few unpleasant bloodlettings, if these are your cup of tea, but they look rather paltry compared to more current abuses of the Hostel sort. Saving grace: The detectives’ "interrogation" scene of Pacino and his bondage-giving partner remains one of the great camp hoots of cinema. To help you stay alert during the progressively slack and dank 100-odd minutes, I suggest watching for small roles essayed by actors who went on to better things, including Ed O'Neill and Leo Burmester (both of whose first film this was), Powers Boothe, Don Scardino (who now mostly directs) and James Remar.
While I realize that it is tempting for a reviewer to unmask/rethink a flop film (which Cruising most definitely was) as something worthwhile, I must take issue with Nathan Lee's review in The Village Voice (which, in fairness, was mostly critical) in which he makes a big to-do about how exciting it is to see the movie's take on the back-room bars and the smiles of pleasure on the faces of their denizens, as though sex could only be enjoyed "back in the day" and pre-AIDS. To begin with, what you see are more often blank stares or nasty smirks than smiles of enjoyment. And I can't help but wonder if Mr. Lee missed seeing Shortbus--the ne plus ultra of films that make sex, gay and straight, seem healthy, enjoyable and fun--even in the time of the virus.
The DVD arrives with both a commentary from Mr. Friedkin and a "Making of" featurette.
See also: An interview with director Friedkin about Cruising.
Discuss this film in the GreenCine forums.
Posted by cphillips at September 24, 2007 1:19 PM