70,000 gang members. One million guns. Two cops.
It’s hard to remember just how scary gangs were thirty or so years ago. Though the 1950s gave us Rebel Without A Cause, West Side Story generally took the sting out of juvenile gangs. But then in the 80s and early 90s, the Crips and Bloods became the image of “super-predators.” Combining access to both crack and automatic weapons, gang warfare went from a relatively contained affair to open conflict that brought in lots of innocent bystanders. And media went along for the ride, covering every blood battle and plastering it over the news. Then the movies followed, with a glut of inner-city, gang-inspired stories proliferating in the 90s. But one of the earliest films in the trend, and one that reminds us just how scary the gang situation was, is Dennis Hopper’s fourth directorial effort Colors.
Danny (Sean Penn, Taps) is a rookie cop partnered with the experienced Bob (Robert Duvall, The Judge). Together they try to tackle the gang violence in Los Angeles, with Danny learning the ropes and falling in love with the wrong person.
Dennis Hopper’s epic struggles with addiction, not to mention his staggering body of work as an actor, have often overshadowed his work as a director. Nine films is a lot more than many directors get in Hollywood (especially after the debacle that was The Last Movie), and with a classic like Easy Rider under his belt, actors know to trust him.
Colors catches its two leads at interesting points in their careers. Robert Duvall, already a hugely respected actor with a number of classic performances under his belt, was transitioning from the middle-age highs of Apocalypse Now and The Great Santini, to the work of his later years (starting, I would say, with Lonesome Dove the year after Colors). He’s still fiery and full of hard-won insight, but it’s also obvious the years are catching up with his character.
In sharp contrast is Sean Penn, who was leaving behind the fiery roles of his youth (Taps, The Falcon And The Snowman) and beginning to approach the intense roles that would win him praise in the 90s (like his turn in Carlito’s Way). Where his previous roles had been full of bluster and youthful energy (or rage), for Colors Penn bottles it all up, becoming the clean-cut kid looking to blend in with authority. It’s an odd turn for the actor, but gives him a strong opportunity to showcase his range.
For many viewers, the two leads will be the major draw of Colors, but the rest of the cast are great too. A young Don Cheadle is a standout as a nervy gangster. He’s gone from much of the film for plot reasons, but he still leaves a strong impression. Maria Conchita Alonso is also strong as Penn’s love interest. Damon Wayans showcases his range with a more dramatic role.
Beyond the actors, the film is a bit of a time capsule of a very particular moment in the history of the LAPD. One of the most fascinating parts of OJ Simpson: Made In America is the way the documentary explores the history of tension between L.A’s African-American community and the LAPD. Colors comes at a point after the explosion of crack but before the Rodney King case shined a (necessary) light on one of the more violent and disorganized police forces in the U.S. Colors walks a pretty fine line, showing both sides of the cops and the criminals. It’s not rah-rah police, nor does it show every gangster as a modern knight. It’s not a perfect film, but it at least tries to be honest about the problems on the street.
Colors is being released as part of Shout! Factory’s Shout Select line. That level of quality shows, especially with the 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. This is a pleasingly film-like presentation. There’s a bit of damage in the early parts of the film, but overall the source is clean. That means that the detail goes to showcasing natural grain and the film’s strong photography. Daylight scenes are especially impressive. Colors are well saturated, and skin tones look natural. There are no significant compression or authoring artifacts to speak of. It’s not a knock-out (and likely won’t be without a full-blown restoration), but this is a solid presentation of a catalog release. The quality is matched by the film’s DTS-HD 2.0 stereo audio. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, with no hiss or distortion. Herbie Hancock’s score sounds rich and detailed, while the film’s use of hip-hop on the soundtrack offers plenty of thump.
Extras start with the fact that this cut is the “Unrated Cut” of the film that adds back in material cut for theatrical distribution (including more time with the Hispanic gang as well as a love scene between Alonso and Penn). We also get a pair of interviews totaling 45 minutes. The first is with screenwriter Michael Shiffer (who gets almost 30 minutes of screentime). He addresses the origins of the film, its production, and its reception (you can also find a bonus couple of minutes with Schiffer as an Easter egg). The other interview features LAPD “consultant” Dennis Fanning, who discusses the film’s relationship to reality and the changing landscape of gang culture. The film’s trailer is also included.
Colors can feel a bit over-stuffed at times. This extended “Unrated Cut” tops out at just over two hours. That’s a lot of time to spend with these characters. Add to that the fact that the film can feel a bit overstuffed in places. It’s almost a given that if you’re going to focus on a gang that you’re going to have to have at least two. And if you’ve got at least two, the characters start multiplying pretty fast. Colors does a pretty solid job of fleshing these characters out pretty quickly, but it can feel difficult to remember who everybody is and how they relate. A solid mini-series (like say, what The Wire would become) is probably the better choice to really tell this story, so the narrative here can feel both too-long and not long enough.
Colors is a decent entry in the canon of gang-related films. It features some excellent directing from veteran Dennis Hopper. This Blu-ray release is a stacked special edition that fans will surely appreciate.