Wednesday, December 8, 2010


"In the heart of the city, people die for wearing the wrong colors."  Well, so do nighttime joggers who don't wear reflective gear, but nobody makes a movie about them.  The year was 1988 and inner-city gang warfare was in the news.  In the 2000s, thanks to Michael Jordan's retirement, shoe-related murder has gone down significantly gang violence is not the epidemic it once was, especially in California, but it was a huge issue in the late 80s and early 90s, one that cried out for a voice to speak about it in popular culture.  Who can speak to both the adults trying to deal with the issue and the teens tangled in the problem?  Dennis Hopper?  Really?  Interesting choice.  Hot on the heels of a career revival, helped by his performances in Blue Velvet and Hoosiers (and not at all helped by Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), Hopper jumped back in the director's chair for the first time in eight years for Colors.  Let's see...a movie about the police and gang members in Los Angeles, around 1990...I wonder if racism will play a part...?

Danny McGavin (Sean Penn), a member of the LAPD's elite C.R.A.S.H. (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit, has a smart mouth and an attitude that requires him to lash out at the slightest sign of disrespect.  After he makes a joke about tampons during a C.R.A.S.H. meeting, McGavin is assigned to a new partner, the about-ready-to-retire Bob Hodges (Robert Duvall).  Hodges knows that you cannot police an area without the aid of its citizens.  Well, not easily, anyway.  His methods include politeness and courtesy to suspected gang members, and he usually doesn't arrest for minor infractions; he wants to build up enough trust that the people on the streets will alert him if something big or dangerous is going to happen.  McGavin doesn't do things like that.  If he's not in a car chase, he's in a foot race.  If he's he sees a suspect, he rushes in head down.  McGavin earns the nickname Pac-Man on the streets because he drives a bright yellow car and is known to eat scumbags for breakfast.  Probably not literally.  So, this is a good (easy-going) cop, bad (-ass) cop story, with Hodges at his wits end and McGavin completely baffled as to why he irritates his partner.

Meanwhile, a gang war is heating up between the local Crips, Bloods, and a few other gangs.  Lead by the deadly serious Roccet (Don Cheadle) and accompanied by the perpetually high (and possibly mentally retarded) T-Bone (Damon Wayans), the Crips have some big plans to shoot up some Bloods.  However, their plan will take them through the turf of a few other gangs, including a small but tough gang of mostly Hispanics (including a young and thankfully dialogue-free Mario Lopez).  This is the sort of big, dangerous thing that Hodges needs gang members to alert him to.  Will his methods carry the day, or will Pac-Man's?  Or maybe neither?

Robert Duvall is a very talented actor, and he plays his part of the wise veteran pretty well.  He might spend a suspicious amount of time fixing up his hair for someone who has been bald since 1960, and he might actually say "I'm too old for this shit" at one point in this film, but he plays his part and does it well.  Sean Penn also turns in a good performance, even if his acting during a mourning scene is reminiscent of I am Sam.  The rest of the cast is just bit players.  Maria Conchita Alonso has the thankless task of playing both McGavin's love interest and reality check, but she did a decent job with what she was given.  I was surprised to see Don Cheadle playing a street thug, but I'm not going to criticize the role choices for a struggling young black actor; in retrospect, it's impressive just how many complex and non-stereotypical roles Cheadle has played in his career.  It was nice to see Tony Todd pop up as an angry citizen, but it was only a cameo.  Dennis Hopper does a pretty good job directing.  I liked that there was a lot of overlapping dialogue with both the police and the gang members.  I don't know how good Hopper's instincts for storytelling were, but he was definitely able to capture realism in most scenes.

The dialogue is one of the age markers for this film.  If I had a dollar for every time someone used the word "homes" or "hommie," I would have enough to have Hopper's corpse stuffed and mounted in my apartment, probably posed with a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hand.  Trust me, I've done the research, and there are very reasonable taxidermists in the area.  It's not that the dialogue feels strained or awkward, but a lot of it was probably going out of style when the film was released.  The music stands up pretty well, despite being clearly from 1988, with a Herbie Hancock score and Ice-T rapping the title track.  Neither are particularly memorable or relevant today, but they're pretty good for the late 80s.

I'm still not sure how much I like this movie.  It's not a lot, mind you, but I'm not quite sure what side of decently mediocre it falls on.  On the one hand, I'm glad that this movie doesn't wrap everything up with a nice bow and say, "And THAT is how to end gang violence --- introduce free ice cream Wednesdays!"  I understand that "issue" movies aren't trying to solve a problem as much as they are bringing attention to it.  I just feel like Dennis Hopper was a little too pleased with himself at the end.  The goal of this film is to follow McGavin's progression as a member of C.R.A.S.H., from a hot-head to something else.  His is the only character that has a dramatic arc, so his must be the key story, right?  Well, changing his attitude in the very last scene isn't enough.  And if McGavin is the key to the narrative, then the film should have placed more importance on his work and how Hodges influenced him, for better or for worse.  In other words, I think this would have been more effective if, instead of being about "the gang problem," it was a movie about a young police officer and his work with and against gang members.  And while I think Penn and Duvall were fine actors in this movie, they did not share much chemistry; in a surprising choice, the script doesn't require them to.  As it is, though, gangs take center stage here and the police are simply reacting to them.  If the focus is on an issue, then I feel that the audience deserves a solution to that issue, naive or stupid as that solution may be.  Without that, the film ends with no real sense of accomplishment.

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