“Cruising”: A Penetrating Recap

Overall, William Friedkin's notorious gay slasher flick Cruising follows a familiar Hollywood formula: “Big-city cop goes undercover in insular subculture outside the mainstream. Cop learns their ways and finds self strangely drawn to them.” Swap out “barn-raising” for “sadomasochistic orgy,” and it’s pretty much the same movie as Witness. Everybody even wears a lot of black.

Opening credits. C-R-U-I-S-I-N-G! Enormous white letters scrolls sideways across a black screen, just like in Rocky, so we know we’re in for a real triumph-of-the-spirit, Oscar-bait kind of feel-good movie.

We open on a tug boat in New York harbor, and I guess it’s too much to hope that they’ll zoom in on Barbra on the bow, belting out “Don’t Rain On My Parade.” Instead, they fish out a severed arm. Don’t worry, though. This grisly opening really doesn’t have anything to do with the plot; it’s more like an establishing shot, akin to Times Square marquees and carriage rides in Central Park, to let us know where we are. “Look, a severed limb — it must be New York City in summer.”

A police detective and medical examiner poke at the arm on a metal tray. It’s the first time we hear any dialogue in the movie, and it’s fairly disconcerting because it’s all been dubbed over and the pacing is a bit too fast-paced to be realistic. In fact, it sounds like the start of a screwball comedy from the ‘30s, and I’m wondering if maybe the severed arm is just an item on some mad-capped socialite’s scavenger hunt list, right after "baby leopard cub" and "Rockette garter belt."

The detective and the M.E. are flummoxed about this arm and how it got there:

Detective: I want this tested for D.N.A. and I want it done yesterday!
M.E.: But this is 1980. We don’t have D.N.A. testing. We don’t even have Snapple or Netflix. But, then again, the Olsen twins haven’t even been conceived, so it’s not all bad.

They somehow conclude — from the limp-wristed angle with which the knife was wielded, I guess — that the arm was probably a gay arm chopped off by a gay killer.

We move out to the mean streets of downtown Manhattan’s booming leather district, where two bad cops are on patrol. We know they’re bad because one of them is fat and the other is pockmarked. Plus, he’s played by the maniac from Maniac. They’re bonding over their love of donuts and hatred of gays.

This is the first place, but by no means the last, where the movie shows how preposterous its conception of urban gay life is. They’d have you believe that lower Manhattan is teeming with thousands of leather daddies having a veritable orgy right outside. In fact, there’s so many of them out on the street it makes you wonder why anyone bothers with the bars at all, when you can simply open the front door and hurl yourself into a mass of bodies ready to do you right on the sidewalk. And you wouldn’t even have to pay a cover.

The bad cops pick up a couple of leggy, long-haired women wearing black stretch pants, leather jackets and caps, who appear to be on the game. But when they start to speak we realize — GASP! — they’re actually men dressed as women!

So let me get this straight. The first gay men we see in the movie are leather-clad, cross-dressing hustlers. Since this movie is clearly going to traffic in gay stereotypes, it’s kind of nice how they’ve conveniently managed to encapsulate so many into just two characters. If one of them is a hairdresser and the other owns a poodle, they’ll have covered pretty much everything … except deranged killer with daddy issues, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

But first, the cops make the drag duo pleasure them by hand and by mouth right in the cop car. Wow, that’s one creative way to work off a ticket. I’m going to try that the next time I’m pulled over for speeding. But only if the real cop is much, much hotter.

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