Dennis Hopper was formidable actor, able to outshine the stars even when playing supporting parts, like in his unforgettable performance as Frank in Blue Velvet. He was also an accomplished director, and his 1969 feature debut Easy Rider is hailed as the ultimate film manifesto of 1960s counterculture. Hopper’s directorial career, however, faltered soon following disaster called The Last Movie and Hopper’s serious problems with drug addiction. It took almost two decades for Hopper to start putting his life back in order and, following few interesting acting appearances, he returned behind camera with 1988 action drama Colors.
The plot is set in Los Angeles, city that, like so many in 1980s America, saw drug-fuelled explosion of violence, much of it committed by numerous street gangs whose members were recruited from impoverished and government-neglected black and Latino neighbourhoods. LAPD tries to stop it by dedicating special unit called Community Resources Against Hoodlums or C.R.A.S.H. for the task of dealing with the gangs. The protagonists are two C.R.A.S.H. members who just became partners. The older is Bob Hodges (played by Robert Duvall), veteran who is one year away from pension and who prefers doing his job through diplomacy and nurturing good relationship with junior gang members in hope of keeping the fragile peace and gaining information on “big fish”. His partner is Danny McGavin (played by Sean Penn), young short-tempered man who thinks that he must prove himself by arresting or at least intimidating as many suspected gang members as possible. Their different methods of policing will be put to the test when they are forced to deal with ongoing war between Bloods and Crips, a conflict that also affects smaller Latino gang led by Leo “Frog” Lopez (played by Trinidad Silva), Hodges’ old acquaintance and part-time informer.
Colors is good example how passage of time can make the same film being criticised for completely opposite reasons. Originally, Reagan era conservatives attacked film (in which famous and then very controversial rapper Ice T played title song) for celebrating street gangs and making them look “cool” to impressionable youth. Decades later, left-wing critics tend to attack Colors for promoting heavy-handed “law and order” approach towards street crime and thus justifying police brutality, racism and all the other evils that made Black Lives Matter so popular. In reality, scriptwriter Michael Schiffer tries rather realistic and balanced approach towards the issue of street gangs. A town hall meeting scene featuring angry inner city residents suggests that the lack of jobs and seemingly easy money made through drug dealing and crime made so many youths turn to crime. Script also takes rather pessimistic view and suggests that the problem is too complex and too big to be solved through simple solutions; both Hodges’ soft and McGavin’s hard approach are unlikely to make any meaningful and long-lasting change for the better. Even the characters who are intelligent and who are supposed to know better easily succumb to social and cultural pressures that bring them back to self-destructive gangland way of life.
Colors, at least for the most part, avoids preachiness and pathos which was characteristic for 1990s Hollywood film dealing with sad realities of inner city life. This is mostly due to Hopper using subdued directorial style, insisting on realism and striving for authenticity (which also included real life Los Angeles street gang members serving as extras and even providing security). Documentary-like approach is helped by the cinematography of Haskell Wexler. Cast is also superb, and that includes Robert Duvall as old veteran and Sean Penn as young and brash man (with character not that different from the actor who was briefly jailed during production over violent altercation). The rest of the cast, which includes some notable names, is adequate, but not that impressive. The exception is Trinidad Silva as Frog; he plays character with great deal of depth, realism and conflicting emotions. This was one of the last roles of a character actor who few months after premiere tragically died in traffic accident. Maria Conchita Alonzo is, on the other hand, wasted in the role of McGavin’s Latina girlfriend whose only purpose is provide romantic subplot and some cheap melodrama at the end. Colors at times suffers because of the poor pace and is slightly overlong; some scenes, like car chase following disrupted gang member’s funeral, looks introduced only to provide Colors with some extra action. Even with controversies, Colors became box office hit and re-established reputation of Hopper as serious film maker. Modern audience willing to disregard certain flaws would probably conclude that such outcome was well deserved.
RATING: 7/10 (+++)
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