Colors  (1988)    Orion/Drama-Action    RT: 127 minutes    Unrated Version (strong gang violence, pervasive language, full frontal nudity, sexual content, drug abuse)    Director: Dennis Hopper    Screenplay: Michael Schiffer    Music: Herbie Hancock    Cinematography: Haskell Wexler    Release date: April 15, 1988 (US)    Cast: Sean Penn, Robert Duvall, Maria Conchita Alonso, Randy Brooks, Glenn Plummer, Trinidad Silva, Grand L. Bush, Don Cheadle, Damon Wayans, Leon Robinson, Romeo De Lan, Courtney Gains, Gerardo Mejia, Mario Lopez, Rudy Ramos, Sy Richardson, R.D. Call, Seymour Cassel, Jack Nance, Micole Mercurio.    Box Office: $46.6 million (US)



 By the 80s, the idea of the modern “cop movie” became fully formed. Cars driving at ludicrous speed or flying through the air, one or two-man teams taking down an army of scumbags and humorous banter between mismatched partners were common elements. The 1988 cop movie Colors has more of the gritty realism of 70s cop pictures like The French Connection and Serpico. It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting the first time I saw in April ’88. At the time, I didn’t like Colors all that much. I gave it a second look a few months later when it came out on video and liked it better. I understood what director Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) was going for. He takes us inside the gang culture in L.A. with his drama about two cops caught in the middle of an escalating gang war between the Bloods and the Crips. Colors still has its flaws but it’s a pretty good effort.

 colors-posterColors opens by explaining that the police are basically fighting a losing bottle. There are two units that deal with gang-related matters, the LAPD has C.R.A.S.H. (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) and the Sheriff’s Department has O.S.S. (Operation Safe Streets). In all, there are 250 cops that deal with gangs. However, there are over 600 gangs with almost 70,000 members in L.A. alone. It’s pretty staggering when you think about it. Then we meet our two “heroes”. Veteran cop Bob Hodges (Duvall, The Godfather) is teamed up with hot-headed rookie Danny McGavin (Penn, At Close Range) to patrol the violent streets of East L.A. and South Central. Hodges is a year from retirement and tries to handle things quietly and diplomatically, establishing a “rapport” between himself and the hoods. McGavin, on the other hand, is a maverick who wants to take gang members off the street by any and all means necessary. His methods earn him the street name “Pac-Man”.

 The tension between the two biggest gangs in L.A. gets worse when the Crips kill a Blood in a drive-by shooting. The police try to keep the peace but to little avail. The 21st Street Gang, a mixed-race gang led by Frog (Silva, Hill Street Blues), gets dragged into it too. Frog has a rapport with Hodges and feeds him information from time to time. He becomes a target after he passes something along to Hodges that he overhead a Crip telling another thug.

 Here’s the weird thing about Colors. You’d think the intense subject matter would make for an intense movie. It’s not. It’s actually rather easy-going with a loose narrative that jumps back and forth between the two cops and the gangs. I think Colors would have been more successful had it focused more on the latter. When it does, it’s pretty great. Hopper takes us right inside the gang culture and shows us the reality, that it’s nothing at all like you see in rap videos. These people don’t tool around in expensive cars and live in fancy homes with a pool. They’re not always surrounded by hot girls. They live in rough areas, drive crappy old cars or vans, hang out in vacant lots, street corners and under bridges. It’s a violent lifestyle where a person could be killed at any moment without warning. We get to see how new gang members are “jumped in”. Other members attack and beat them to see how much they can take. It’s quite brutal. We also see the do-gooders- i.e. social workers- who try to encourage these youngsters to walk away from the life and make a fresh start. It’s what we call blind idealism. The reality is these kids have nowhere else to go. For them, gang is family and nothing can ever sever that bond.

 When the focus shifts to Hodges and McGavin, it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. You have the older vet and the young rookie with different ideas on how to approach their jobs. The older one tries to mentor the younger one. They develop a bond. They become friends. They fight. They have each other’s backs when it really counts. We get a glimpse inside their personal lives. Hodges is a family man, wife and three kids. McGavin gets romantically involved (briefly) with Louisa (Alonso, The Running Man), a waitress who’s taking a big risk dating him knowing that her friends and neighbors don’t like cops. Neither does she, for that matter. It ends when McGavin goes too far in dealing with a young vandal. This part of Colors is fairly interesting albeit standard stuff.

 For the most part, Colors remains within the bounds of plausibility. Take the chase scene after gang members shoot up a church during a funeral. The cops go after them. Everybody drives at believable speeds. There’s none of that wild Lethal Weapon/Beverly Hills Cop stuff. This holds true even when the chase ends with both cars flipping over. That kind of thing can (and, I expect, does) happen. The only time Colors crosses into “cop movie” territory is when a gang member crashes through the front window of a restaurant on a stolen motorcycle. A big fight between him and McGavin unfolds in the kitchen. This is like something out of a different movie.

 Okay, so Colors isn’t perfect. It does have many strong points like great performances from Duvall and Penn. Duvall is a consummate professional; I’ve never seen him deliver a bad performance. He’s been in some bad movies (Days of Thunder, anyone?) but he’s always spot-on and on point. This role is tailor-made for Penn, an actor with a notoriously volatile temper. In fact, he served 33 days in jail for punching an extra on the set of this film. It’s kind of hard not to think about Penn’s deeds while watching his character rough up street thugs, at one point spraying paint into the young vandal’s face. The two actors have a nice rapport. The rap-heavy soundtrack definitely works in the movie’s favor. It gives Colors more of an in-the-streets feel. The theme song (“Colors”) by Ice-T is pretty intense. Colors is raw and realistic; it doesn’t have the slick, polished feel of movies like Beverly Hills Cop II or To Live and Die in L.A. Hopper wisely chooses substance over style. Colors is such a good movie, you wish it had been a great one. It’s dated now but still watchable. 

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