By Richard Winters
My Rating: 4 out of 10
4-Word Review: Cop infiltrates gay underground.
A serial killer is attacking gay men who frequent New York’s S&M bars and young cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is chosen to go undercover as a gay and infiltrate these ‘leather clubs’ in order to bring out the killer. However, the job requirements demand that he must be completely isolated from the rest of the force and not carry a gun, which eventually causes a strain on his personal life particularly in his relationship with his girlfriend Nancy (Karen Allen).
The film, which is loosely based on actual events that occurred during the late 70’s and captured in Gerald Walker’s novel of the same name, was considered quite controversial at the time of its production. Protestors who felt the film accentuated the gay stereotype tried to create loud noises during filming and even shine reflective lights on the actors in an attempt to mess up the scenes. In retrospect it is hard to imagine that director William Friedkin is in anyway homophobic as just ten years earlier he did the brilliant adaptation of The Boys in the Band, which remains to this day one of the better films dealing with gay issues. The story certainly does wallow in ugly elements, but also makes the point to describe this as an extreme subculture and not reflective of the gay lifestyle as a whole, which in my opinion made the film seem more enlightening to New York’s gay underground of a bygone era and less propaganda as its critics ascertained.
To some degree I liked the explicit uncompromising approach, but after a while it became one-dimensional and predictable. The scenes of the killings are unnecessarily prolonged and some of the segments showing large groups of men having sex at a bar come off as overly-stylized and looking reminiscent of a homoerotic scene from a Fassbinder film.
Friedkin does manage to add a few unique touches including having a well-built black man wearing nothing but a jock strap enter the room during police interrogations and violently slap suspects who he felt weren’t telling the truth, which according to one of the film’s advisors was an actual technique used by police at the time. The way the movie captures the monotony and frustrations of investigating a complex case such as this and leaving open that there may have been more than one killer is also well done and helps elevate this a bit from the usual formulaic cop thriller.
Pacino gives a gutsy performance including one scene showing him tied up in bed naked during some kinky S&M play, but the character’s motivations are confusing particularly the way he so quickly accepts this difficult assignment that most others would be very reluctant to do. The fact that his experiences ends up affecting him psychologically isn’t compelling since that becomes a foregone conclusion right from the start.
Paul Sorvino is perfect as the police captain. His gray hair dye was a little overdone, but his limp was great. Allen has a good moment at the end when she tries on Pacino’s leather hat and coat that he brought home with him and Joe Spinell makes the most of his small role as a corrupt cop who harasses gays only to end up patronizing gay bars on his off hours. You can also spot Powers Boothe in an early role as a hankie salesman and Ed O’Neil as a police detective.
The idea of exposing the dark side of police life is no longer original or interesting and the film’s shock value has lessened through the years and thus failing to leave any type of lasting impression or message.
My Rating: 4 out of 10
Released: February 15, 1980
Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes
Director: William Friedkin
Studio: United Artists
Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video