Al Pacino plays Steve Burns, a young cop who goes undercover in New York's leather/BDSM subcommunity to catch a serial killer. The film drew protests from many sides but notably the mainstream gay community. Many gays protested the film and they did their best to disrupt filming.
One of the most notorious aspects of the film is the fact that a full 40 minutes of footage, depicting explicit sexual activity in a leather club — filmed in a real venue, the Mineshaft in the West Village, and featuring many of that venue's real-life patrons — was cut from the film before its release, in the hopes of avoiding an X rating, and has never been publicly shown.
To this day, Cruising remains one of the most widely analyzed and debated milestones in the history of LGBT depictions in film; critics and filmmakers still argue about whether the film constitutes homophobic propaganda or simply a neutral, documentary-like depiction of a genuine reality (or both.)
This film provides examples of:
- All Gays are Promiscuous: Played straight but for the location, time period, and particular sub-community, and especially at the Mineshaft, this was largely Truth in Television.
- Alone with the Psycho: The cops' brilliant plan is to get their own man alone with the serial killer. Causes a moment of Fridge Logic later on. Burns allows himself to be tied up by a man he suspects is the killer. His cop buddies bust in to save him, and he tells them they have no evidence because they busted in too soon. But if they'd waited, he would have been sodomized and killed. The movie sort of implies he wants to be sodomized, at least.
- Ambiguous Ending: A number of points are left ambiguous:
- At the end of the film, Steve's girlfriend puts on Stuart's outfit (jacket, cap, sunglasses), which Steve has brought back to the apartment. Whether it suggests Steve intends to take up the killer's role and continue the killings, whether it suggests that Steve is already partially respondible for some of the killings, or whether he just wishes to explore his sexuality in the BDSM LGBTQ community is left up to the viewer..
- When Stuart is arrested, the police state that they have his fingerprint on a coin left in a film booth from one of the killings, but Stuart protests his innocence. It is left up to the viewer to decide whether he committed the other murders that were explicitly shown in the film, or if another killer was responsible.
- Who was responsible for the murder of Ted (Steve's neighbour)? Was it Ted's boyfriend Gregory, enraged at Ted's interest in Steve? Was it Steve, enraged that Ted would not leave Gregory? Or was it another killer altogether?
- Who was responsible for the dismembered body found in the water at the beginning of the film? The MO doesn't fit that of the murders shown on screen throughout the course of the film.
- Ambiguously Gay: Although Steve is portrayed as hetero, he tells Nancy "there's a lot you don't know about me" right before he embarks on his investigation in the leather bar underground. He also had no problem with being tied up by a homosexual man he suspected of being the killer.
- Bisexual Love Triangle: Nancy is Steve's hetero, conformist life outside of the police. He becomes genuine friends with Tad, and if his boyfriend's jealousy is any indication, it was reciprocated. He also has subtext with the possible killer.
- Bondage Is Bad: It's even stated that the abnormal level of aggression around the gay subculture in the film is because they are into leather/kink. Whenever a character is tied up, there's a possibility they're with the killer.
- Content Warning: Presumably due to the boycotts from the LGBT community before it opened, the film opens with a disclaimer that the film is not about the gay community as a whole.
- Cowboy Cop: Not much, but Burns does break into a suspects' apartment with no warrant.
- Cult Soundtrack: This movie represents the only film soundtrack work by The Germs. They recorded six songs for the film, of which only one, "Lion's Share", appeared. The cut "Shakedown, Breakdown" was written and recorded especially for the film by cult band Rough Trade.
- Depraved Homosexual: Played with, depending on how you analyze the film. Though the movie shows lots of kinky public sex, those kinky characters are implied to have normal jobs and regular lives outside of their fetishes. The killer is a depraved homosexual, but this is not treated as a typical feature of homosexuality..
- Gayborhood: Steve Burns moves into one of these as part of his cover and makes friends with his neighbor, a kind young writer. The Meatpacking District was a gayborhood as well, up through the late 90's.
- Gay Cruising: Naturally. The film is about an undercover cop embedded in New York's gay leather/BDSM subcommunity to catch a serial killer. The sexual activity mostly happens within the leather/BDSM club, however, though gay men also are shown cruising for sex in Central Park.
- Giallo: Vibrant color scheme, mysterious (possibly multiple) killers, a deliberately confusing plot, long sexual and violent scenes...
- Gym Bunny: Many gay men are shown either working out a lot, or just displaying their perfect bodies. Burns begins to work out to fit in better.
- He Who Fights Monsters: Burns is heavily implied to have taken up the killer's mantle in the end.
- Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: The NYPD have their suspect Skip Lee slapped around and threaten him in hopes that he'll confess to being the killer. It doesn't work (he was innocent too).
- Leather Man: One of the first major Hollywood works to showcase the subcommunity, and to shoot in actual leather bars with real leathermen as extras.
- Noble Bigot with a Badge: Burns suspects his superiors are these, at one point.
- Police Brutality: The police rough up a potential suspect during the interview, severely irking Burns.
- Ripped from the Headlines: Along with a novel and the undercover work of Randy Jurgensen, the film was also loosely based on a homophobic and/or homosexual serial killer active in New York during the 1970s. The murderer was never positively identified, though he is believed to be Paul Bateson (who, coincidentally, had a bit part as an X-ray technician in Friedkin's earlier film The Exorcist).
- Strange Cop in a Strange Land: The point of the film. A straight cop going undercover in a world of rough gay sex. (In one hilariously ironic scene, he's kicked out of a leather bar for not dressing like a cop.)