Spoiler warning: This review discusses important plot points, and, by neccessity, does mention the ending.
Just two months after Cruising hit the theatres, a man armed with a sub-machine gun entered The Ramrod - a bar prominently featured in the film - and shot two people dead with a further twelve requiring hospital treatment. William Friedkin would make no comment.
A number of dismembered limbs are fished from New York harbor. The bloody corpses of two gay men are discovered in the Big Apple's homosexual underworld. Captain Edelson (Sorvino) of the NYPD is quick to make a serial killer connection and calls in a young officer who bears more than a passing resemblance to the two identified victims. Steve Burns (Pacino) is keen to accept the challenge of going undercover, sans shield and gun, aiming to flush out the killer(s) and halt the spate of murders. Under strict instructions to tell no-one about his mission, Burns leaves girlfriend Nancy (Allen) completely in the dark, merely remarking that his mysterious assignment may prove to be dangerous but will ultimately lead to early promotion. Using the alias 'John Forbes', Burns rents a room in an apartment block and is befriended by a gay man named Ted (Scardino) before venturing into the bars, peepshows and cruising areas frequented by the some of the most extreme members of the heavy leather scene.
William Friedkin was no stranger to controversy, with his infamous take on demonic possession causing outrage throughout the world, but Cruising seemed to inspire hatred from everyone, be they gay or straight. Indeed, the lynch mobs were out in force long before this film wrapped, accusing Friedkin of adopting a homophobic stance that would inflict virtual GBH on the city's gay community. As with The Exorcist, a whole library of stories have been woven into the fabric of this film: Friedkin carrying out research by visiting gay clubs wearing only a jockstrap; Richard Heffner (head of the ratings board) attending a private screening and declaring, "There aren't enough Xs in the alphabet to rate this film"; psychologist Aaron Stern (the man who formulated the ratings board code and passed The Exorcist uncut) charging $1,000 per day to help Friedkin make cuts, and 'Hurricane Billy's' decision to insert subliminal hardcore images into scenes that were ordered to be trimmed by the board.
Now, more than 20 years later, Cruising is still missing approximately 40 minutes of footage including the full version of the ferocious stabbing scene, and various sexual acts which verge on hardcore. While I firmly believe that Friedkin's original cut will surface on DVD in the not-too distant future, those who wish to make a final decision on this film will, for now, have to make do with the truncated 96 minute version which was successfully submitted to the BBFC in March 2003 by Film Four. This incarnation remains the longest version currently available.
So, what does the missing footage consist of?
Friedkin has stated that he was forced to cut scenes involving fisting and golden showers; acts that are given and received by both sexes outside the world of cinema but are deemed to be unacceptable for viewing by mature audiences - at least, in reputable theatres. For many people, Crusing goes way too far in its censored version, so the restoration of these highly controversial scenes may well raise the bar higher than anyone would like. While it's hard to disagree with such a viewpoint, there is a train of thought which suggests that Pacino's character went through a whole lot more than we've seen, making his decision to accept the role even more courageous. Should we not be allowed to fully explore what may turn out to be his most demanding film to date? Of course, there is the possibility that Cruising may fare best in its existing version; that audiences now have more to think about, particularly with regard to Burns' sexual preferences and his formative years. While it's likely that Burns is a closet homosexual fighting to repress his urges, there's also a strong possibility that he was the victim of sexual abuse from his father: the former is suggested during his conversation with Nancy ("There's a lot you don't know about me") as is the latter - check out his reaction when Nancy tells him his father called earlier.
As the film progresses, Burns moves closer to his 'other world' and further away from Nancy, eventually emerging as a suspect for Ted's murder. Certainly, the final scene where Nancy dons a leather jacket and cap while waiting for Steve (or John?) to finish shaving suggests there may be more bloodletting on the cards. As endings go, it's definitely one for the imagination to take hold but as far as Friedkin is concerned, it's NOT the ending he shot - there is more to come. The full version may also give the excellent (and sadly missed) Joe Spinell further screentime, prowling gays bars with his police colleague in search of a little nightstick action. We may also witness valuable extra minutes from Karen Allen whose scenes with Pacino highlight his crisis of sexual faith, and what about Captain Edelson? It's crystal clear that Edelson knew far more about the murders than he was willing/able to divulge and entirely possible he wished to establish more than just a working relationship with Burns; for a film taking the 'sins of the fathers' as its central theme, that would be business as usual.
For the time being, Cruising remains a difficult film to assess. In it's current form, the seedy venues and threat of untold horrors do create a terrifying atmosphere, even in today's taboo-smashing climate where most things go. It is, however, not the film Friedkin wished us to see and we can only await his original cut with bated breath.
American writer/director who has struggled throughout his career to escape the legacy of two of his earliest films. Debuted in 1967 with the Sonny & Cher flick Good Times, but it was the gripping French Connection (1971) and phenomenonally popular The Exorcist (1973) that made Friedkin's name and influenced a whole decade of police and horror films. Since then, some of Friedkin's films have been pretty good (the controversial Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., Blue Chips, Bug, Killer Joe), but many more (Sorceror, The Guardian, Jade, Rules of Engagement) have shown little of the director's undoubtable talent.