Stars – Robert Duvall, Sean Penn, Maria Conchita Alonso, Damon Wayans, Don Cheadle, Trinidad Silva
Director – Dennis Hopper
Released by Shout Select / Shout Factory
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Right from the beginning this film feels authentic. There is a haze in the air that you can see and almost feel. As we ride along the devastated suburban streets of East Los Angeles in the late eighties we see run down houses. People sit out on the front lawn in easy chairs that look like they have been left out for the garbage truck to pick up. Hip hop music and rap blares with an aggressive bass thump. There is a constant din of people talking with or at each other. There are tons of school age kids everywhere. They lounge around draped over the railings and stairs in front of houses. Robert Duvall is Hodges the experienced cop. He’s got a new partner Danny played by Sean Penn. Danny is eager to prove his mettle. He spends the days either roughing up people in the neighborhood or combing his hair just right in any available mirror. He is so amped up and eager to prove himself that it feels dangerous to be around him. Hodges on the other hand has an easy rapport with many of the gang members on the streets. He’ll let somebody go and avoid being dragged down to the station as long as they understand they owe him one. It’s Hodges form of credit in the barrio.
In the excellent interview included as an extra screenwriter Michael Schiffer says he did a lot of research with the real cops who work the gangs. His script conveys this feeling of just riding around day in and day out. Cases come together almost by happenstance with one thing crashing into another. Duvall and Penn behave with such an ease in their roles that we can spend hours aimlessly driving through the various neighborhoods. They liven up the day by jiving around with the locals. Hodges seems to have legitimate feeling for some of the guys he has seen over the years. However when we find out that he has less than a year to go before he retires we can be assured he’ll get shot at the end. There is also a romance between Danny and a pretty local girl Maria Conchito Alonso who he picks up at a fast food joint. While those story arcs feel contrived and hammered into the otherwise easy going script the level of performances that the actors give make this almost forgivable.
Dennis Hopper did an amazing job with his first film Easy Rider (1969). There was a similar feeling of just cruising around and meeting life on its own terms. Whether you call that a beatnik sensibility or an appreciation for the Mise-en-scène Hopper seems to strike that same groove he had found so long ago. The film he made after Easy Rider, The last Movie (1971) was all but incoherent. He only made one more picture after that and it is easy to see why studio would be hesitant to trust him with any kind of budget. Just like the brilliant cinema photographer Laslo Kovaks helped him with Easy Rider, Haskell Wexler shoots Colors with an incredible eye. You have to credit Hopper too though. Dennis strikes gold like he did with his first film. The look of the film and the absolutely authenticity of almost every single performance stands out. The actors seem very natural. No one is trying to shoot the moon. Things are toned down, reigned in and the control really shows. As soon as I saw Trinidad Silva I immediately pegged him as the wise cracking street tough who somehow became a lawyer on the Hill Street Blues TV series. He excels as the gang leader they call Frog here.
Amidst all this texture there are a few fight scenes and two car chases that are off the charts. At times it feels like the stunt people are just dying to top the work that William Friedkin did the last time he was in the neighborhood with To Live and Die in L.A. in 1985. Cars drive pedal to the metal through the narrow streets. Tires screech across lawns. Cars trade paint with any wall that gets too close. These two car chases are visceral and a sheer delight to see. The savageness of some of the close quarter fight scenes features some terrific fight choreography. No one fight like any kind of boxer or martial artists. There is a real street quality to these sequences.
When you watch Colors you get immersed in the gang culture of those days. The drug dealing, the music and the constant tug of war between the Bloods and the Cripps. Blue and red handkerchiefs signify something wroth dying for. The loyalty to the barrio and one’s neighborhood feels very real here. While some of melodramatic turns the narrative takes feel too familiar the overall feel of the film is too good to let that bring it down. Duvall delivers his usual excellent acting job. He really is a splendid actor who is full of subtleties. Penn is capable of exploding. While he’s a firecracker here director Hopper manages to keep him from going off. I had not seen this film in a long time. Not only does it hold up but it truly exceeded all expectations. Ride around the streets with these guys. It’s a helluva trip that comes highly recommended.
Video – 1.85:1
This is a longer 127 cut. The look of the films is aces. The haze, the heat and everything else just ooze from the screen with the way Wexler shot this. Black levels, colors and details are all fine. You’re in such good hands with DP Wexler here. There is a night scene that features a chase through a couple of blocks. We look down from high overheard as a searchlight from a police chopper pinpoints the guy trying to run away. The cops on the ground follow the light. It’s a cool looking shot that must have been a bear to get right.
Audio – DTS-HD Master Stereo with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is easy to follow. The soundtrack has a lot of rap but also some wonderful songs that just hit the time and place. Songs like One Time One Night by Los Lobos and Low Rider by War feel just right. There are also a couple of doo wop songs that gently waft in the background. They play ever so gently and sweetly. Herbie Hancock’s soundtrack at times is dated by the synthesizer sounds but most of it is cool and evocative. He seems like he is standing on the shoulders of Quincy Jones many times and that’s a big compliment.
Extras – The Unrated Cut of the Film, including footage restored from the International Cut and the original Home Video Cut.
“A Cry of Alarm” – An interview with screenwriter Michael Schiffer
“Cops and Robbers” – An interview with Technical Advisor/Ex-L.A.P.D. Gang Division Dennis Fanning
The lengthy interview with screenwriter Michael Schiffer is wonderful. He tells the whole story of how he got what was his first job with this film. He’s got strong recall about working with Dennis Hopper and the actors in the film. It’s nice to see how revealing he is about what he tried to accomplish and how gratified he felt when his work came to life in the hands of actors like Duvall.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Excellent