A confident young cop is shown the ropes by a veteran partner in the dangerous gang-controlled barrios of Los Angeles, where the gang culture is enforced by the colors the members wear.
Dennis Hopper’s film Colors may seem like hundreds of miles removed from his first feature as director Easy Rider, but it’s made twenty years later and it shows effectively at least two things on his part: first, that he can express himself in material that would appear to be a “for-hire” work, specifically with having an older, calmer version of himself in Duvall (the kind that tries to think things through and can be ferocious but has experience from a life of work) and Penn (the young hot-head who you know is good but is troubled in other ways), and secondly that he can go back to some of his earliest acting roots, working in movies featuring rebels and gangs (not least of which Rebel Without a Cause) and actually give them the fire and energy and as-much-as-possible realism so desperately needed. Colors is a mature work from a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing, and will let the actors and the mood of the streets and the temperament of the current events (which were practically untenable in the late 80s and early 90s in gang-banger) LA.
Matter of fact, this should have been Hopper’s professional calling-card, showing that he can make a film that isn’t an art-film or too experimental (Last Movie) or under the radar (Out of the Blue). Indeed you’d have to remind most people that Hopper even directed it since, frankly, he lets his stars steal the show, and rightfully so. There’s not a solid plot to speak of, more-so a character study of two cops, one older one younger, who are partnered up and have to tackle the ghettos and slums, loaded with “Blue” (Crips) and “Red”) (Bloods), and also the various Hispanic gangs that are not as notorious but still as powerful and dangerous.
It’s a series of pieces that soon take shape into a story, but it’s not even about that. It’s just about following these gangs and being true to their nature: of their rites of passage (beating up the new kids and setting them off to prove themselves), their bond and codes, their can-do attitude even when they’re behind bars or in hand-cuffs, and the collective wisdom that you can either talk to a cop or just run… or, another alternative, shoot. It’s also about a value system and class differences; the former relating, of course, to Hodges (Duvall) and Penn, who don’t see eye to eye on how to apprehend suspects or treat them. Penn’s younger guy isn’t a crooked cop or corrupted, but he’s a hot-head, a junkie for adrenaline, while Duvall’s been around the block way too many times (and even admits that he had a higher post before and is still on the streets for reasons not totally made clear) to put up with being “like a gangster” as he says.
And the class part relates to the difference between McGavin (Penn) and his supposed girlfriend, who comes from the Latino parts of the hood and has family that Hodges has come in contact with as a cop, putting them up against the wall. It’s through this that we see the split between the people in Lost Angeles, and while it’s not a subtle point really (and may even be one of the more cliché things in the picture), it still goes a way to try and add immediacy to the drama, and McGain’s own personal conflicts on the streets. And, again, those gangs, some played by actors (Don Cheadle and Damon Wayans in early roles, Sy Richardson), others by I would assume real gang-bangers and people ‘from the streets’ (another thing Hopper is good at, casting real people, which he doesn’t get enough credit for), that are allowed to be fleshed out and made into real people, or as real as they can be in this movie.
The filmmakers don’t make us feel sympathy for the gang members, but through making them human beings as opposed to just targets and caricatures, it adds to the whole experience of being about something. Nothing here is exploited; it’s a well-researched time-capsule that still holds its own years later, least as long as there are crips and bloods and other gangs and, you know, hot-headed cops with old-timer veterans. Very solid, professional film-making.