New York in 1980 was a different place than it is in 2019. And gay life in 1980, specifically, pre-AIDS gay life in the leather underground, was also considerably different.
Set mainly in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, at a moment in history when that turf was populated with leather bars and those into the scene, “Cruising” opens with the discovery of a body part – an arm with a hand attached – floating in the East River. The overworked officers in the police department, when they’re not busy harassing drag queens, appear not to have enough manpower or interest in doing the necessary investigation. But the brutal post-sex (all implied, not shown) murder of yet another leather bar patron in the St. James Hotel, combined with pressure from high ranking officials, leads Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) to call officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino) into his office.
Burns resembles the type that the killer goes after and Edelson offers him the opportunity to go on special assignment deep undercover – meaning no gun and no shield - in the leather underworld. So deep, in fact, that he isn’t allowed to tell his girlfriend, Nancy (Karen Allen), about the case. Dedicated professional that he is, Steve throws himself into his work, assuming the new identity of John Forbes, moving into a new apartment and making friends with his neighbors including struggling gay playwright Ted (Don Scardino).
Steve/John absorbs the experience like a sponge and even gets a lesson in the hankie code from a store clerk (a young Powers Boothe!). He soon has the routine down to a science, lifting weights during the day, packing himself into tight Levi’s and motorcycle boots at night, cruising the bars and the park like a pro. As his transformation progresses, it begins to strain his relationship with Nancy, while opening up new and unexpected feelings within him.
All of this could make for some riveting, and occasionally erotic, viewing if “Cruising” wasn’t so damned, and deliberately, confusing. Director Friedkin almost goes so far as to say that the bewilderment was intentional in the “The History of Cruising,” one of the featurettes included in the bonus material. But it just sounds like he’s making excuses for the mess he made. Somewhat more revealing is “Exorcising Cruising,” the featurette that addresses the hubbub within the gay community surrounding the making of the controversial film. Rating: C