Colors (1988), or Spicoli Patrolling The Ghetto

17 04 2009

If you watched the clip above, yes, that was Don Cheadle blowing away a gang member. Today I took a look at the brutal world of LA gangs in Dennis Hopper’s Colors. This film was made in 1988, when escalating violence between rival gangs was tearing Los Angeles to shreds. It was a reaction to what must have been a scary point in time, when the Bloods and the Crips ruled the barrios and the ghettos with automatic weapons and sheer numbers. What confuses me is just what it is a reaction to.

It stars Robert Duvall and Sean Penn as Officers Hodges and McGavin. McGavin is a hot-headed rookie assigned to veteran officer Hodges. He just transferred to the special gang task-force C.R.A.S.H. unit, and Hodges is charged with showing him the ropes out on the street. Hodges uses diplomacy on the streets to great effect, working to keep the Bloods and the Crips at bay from one another while maintaining leads and sources on the streets to keep any serious altercations from occurring. McGavin sees this and is none too pleased about it. As far as he is concerned, all the punks in the streets are criminals that need to be taught a serious lesson, and sitting around while Hodges converses with them and waives minor charges really irritates him. These two dysfunctional partners will have to find a way to cooperate, or else there may be no stopping an all-out gang war between the Bloods and Crips that could happen any minute as the tensions rise in LA’s rough streets.

This was a well-made film from the maker of Easy Rider and The Last Movie. Dennis Hopper has a way of bringing things down to earth, which is just what the bigger-than-life situation of gangland violence needed. Too often, we have a hyperbolic, sensationalized account of what is happening with the issues plaguing the streets today. In Colors, we don’t see ridiculous, over-saturated color filters or dialog that might have been cribbed and urbanized from Henry V. We have a simple, subdued account of two cops and a thousand thugs that doesn’t need to be sensational to be dramatic.

Sean Penn, taking a break from punching people in real life, made a sharp turn from his previous film at the time, At Close Range, in which he played a young punk trying to get into a gang. He is perfect to play a hot-head, for reasons that need not even be explained. It’s his evolution in the film that was surprising. He makes the character his own, and you could see here that he was shaping up to be an Oscar-winning actor. Duvall, already an Oscar-winner by then, plays the role with a nonchalance that makes you wonder if he is playing an even-tempered cop or if he just didn’t care about the role. The fact that you can’t always tell is another testament to Duvall’s skill, though, and it’s a specialty of his I like to call the Poker Face. Good job, Duvall… or maybe not. Who knows?

Other names that have marginal screen time here are Maria Conchita Alonso, Don Cheadle, Damon Wayans, Glenn Plummer, and a precocious cameo by Mario Lopez! It’s all about Penn and Duvall here, though. Calling these people co-stars is like calling me a cast member because I’m writing about the movie. They all deliver, but not as much as they could have if they had been given a bit more screen time (Damon Wayans steals the one funny moment in the movie for himself, though. Typical Damon Wayans…).

The soundtrack is a little wonky, but maybe that’s just my distaste for rap. Ice-T performs the movie’s theme, appropriately titled “Colors”, and he sure is fond of the term. I think it’s repeated about thirty five to forty times in the song, and if you like Ice-T shouting words at you, this was specially crafted for you. Big Daddy Kane and Eric B. & Rakim are featured in a few tracks, and it’s a decent compilation, if not very dated.

I want to end the review with a question posed for director Dennis Hopper but answerable by anybody who has seen the movie. Colors ends on a slightly ambiguous note. Are we to side with the police or the gangs? Is there a side to choose? They can both be potentially dangerous, but the movie makes no attempt to condemn or condemn anyone. It still makes for a good movie, but when a director gives an audience a blank slate and tells them to tack their own interpretation onto it, he or she is essentially making no statement at all. That style can work, but when a film is made as a reaction to a real issue but it has no message, what does any of it mean? My question to Dennis Hopper, if he were here to answer it, would be this: what is there to be taken away from this film at the end of the day?  I have no answer, but you all can discuss amongst yourselves in the comment section! Overall, I enjoyed Colors, but I still had a one of two gripes about it at the end of the day. Give it a try and give some thought to the question I asked. Until then, I give it 8 homicidal Don Cheadles out of 10. In the immortal words of Ice-T: “COLORS!”

Tomorrow is a surprise movie! Come back tomorrow when I see… uh, something!

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One response

24 04 2012
GerardoSuperFan

Another name in the “co-star” list is the one-hit-wonder GERARDO MEJIA (Rico Suave -1991) ….

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