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 filming and 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, 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.
- 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.
- 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. And 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 happens within the leather/BDSM club, however.
- 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.
- 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.)