A gritty and unflinching look at the gang wars plaguing Los Angeles, Dennis Hopper’s Colors received praise from some critics for its fearless portrayal of gang life, while others accused Hopper of exploiting the increasing violence. The controversy grew after reports of violence outside theaters showing the film were reported. Colors was even taken out of some Los Angeles area theaters after the murder of a 19-year old from Stockton in a movie theater parking lot.
Released before the early 1990’s saw a wave of young, African American directors (including John Singleton, Mario Van Peebles and the Hughes brothers) rising to prominence and with them a greater understanding of life in the inner city, it was rather easy to dismiss Dennis Hopper as the maverick he was, looking to cash in and make some people angry in the process. In reality, Colors was made after months of careful research. Screenwriter Michael Schiffer even spent several weeks interviewing Los Angeles cops and gang members. Shot entirely on location in South Central Los Angeles, Colors added to its authenticity by casting non-actors–some of them real gang members–in smaller roles.
Robert Duvall and Sean Penn star as LAPD cops, one a rookie, one a veteran. Paired together, the two are part of C.R.A.S.H. (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), a tiny task force meant to stem the tide against gain violence. A nineteen-year veteran of the force, Bob Hodges (Duvall) has seen a lot. He knows that sometimes you have to bend the rules to catch the big fish. on the other hand, young, brash Danny McGavin (Penn) wants to bust some heads and make arrests. The tension on the street only grows as gang members notice the two-partner’s inability to present a United front when approaching them.
With the help of Haskell Wexler’s sweeping lense, Hopper follows the action from sidewalks, alleyways, moving cars and helicopters as life in the street–crackling with a nervous energy–plays out. Along the way, we meet drug dealer Clarence “High Top” Brown” (Glenn Plummer), Louisa Gomez (María Conchita Alonso) a woman who briefly dates McGavin, but grows tired of his brutish ways and Leo “Frog” Lopez (Trinidad Silva) A player who wants to keep his younger brother away from gang life. Unlike earlier films about gang life, Colors doesn’t romanize it, but acknowledges that the sense of belonging, being a part of a “family” that was ready to die for them is everything. The prospect of dying a painful death is a fact of life.
Both Duvall and Penn are spectacular in their roles, establishing the kind of easy rapport that makes you believe every word between them is off the cuff. When Duvall and Penn aren’t talking, their roles are rather physical, requiring the arrest of suspects and a lot of running. The two actors are believable as cops who sometimes struggle to come to terms with what their jobs entail and the things they witness.
Despite solid performances, the film has flaws. Some of the action feels repetitive. In trying to show the routine reality of gang life, Dennis Hopper returns to the same well a little to often. Even so, considering that Colors was one of the first films to try and bring a realistic portrait of inner city gang life to the big screen, Hopper, the cast and the rest of the crew deserve plaudits for what they were able to achieve.
Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Shout Factory’s 1080p transfer looks dated, but nonetheless, decent. While softness isn’t an issue, the level of detail is a bit lacking, likely due to the fact that the film is nearly thirty years old. Delineation is fine, though not spectacular. I did notice a few specks and marks throughout the presentation, but don’t think it enough to mar the overall viewing experience. The natural color palette is rather dreary by design, but tones seemed appropriate. Blacks look fine, while shadows have a good level of delineation. While not reference quality material, this transfer represents a noticeable improvement over the MGM DVD release.
Though it won’t blow anyone away, the DTS-HD MA Stereo Audio track does fine with the material, considering its inherent limitations. There’s a nice amount of stereo presence for Herbie Hancock’s synth driven score and effects are pushed throughout the soundfield. Action scenes sound surprisingly good, with effects moving freely as well, without affecting vocals. While dialogue sounded a bit thin on a couple of occasions, for the most part, voices are clean, clear and concise throughout.
English subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Cry of Alarm (HD, 28:46) Screenwriter Michael Schiffer discusses how he got involved in the project, including his pitch, the research involved, writing the script, the characters, the cast and more.
- Cops & Robbers (HD, 16:53) LAPD Gang Division/technical advisor Dennis Fanning. He talks about his career and his work on the film. The guy is colorful!
- Trailer (HD)