Officer Danny McGavin (Sean Penn) is a rookie cop who thinks he knows it all, so when he has been assigned to a section of the force designed to look after the Los Angeles gang problems, he believes strongarm tactics are the right way to go. Sitting in a meeting with many others in this division, he listens to the Chief tell his officers that they need to stem the blood from the wound that is gangland violence, and McGavin makes a smartass comment to the cop next to him. The Chief asks him to repeat it, and is told by a smirking Danny that he makes them sound like tampons, with the result that the young policeman is assigned to team up with one of the most experienced ones, Bob Hodges (Robert Duvall)...
And "Uncle Bob" will teach him a thing or two for this was a case of good (old) cop, bad (young) cop for the two lead characters in a film that tried to make sense of gang culture and deliver a message that it had reached crisis point. Ironic, then, that it was accused on release of exploiting those tensions and warnings about violence breaking out in cinemas showing the movie were prevalent, though on watching it you could see it was at least attempting to take the subject seriously, even if it did fall back on the kind of clichés that were apparently unavoidable in any film with this setting. Director Dennis Hopper was enjoying his career renaissance by now, but Colors threatened to nip that in the bud.
As it played out, it was an empty threat as his work went on to be a fair-sized hit and brought the concept of the Bloods vs the Crips to the world rather than just the Los Angeles area of California where they hailed from. Far from glamorising their activities, Michael Schiffer's script (which he reworked to lend it far more of a social conscience on Hopper's request) illustrated the bullish attitudes where any perceived slight was reason enough to start breaking bones or even shooting your rivals were entirely without merit. Whether by accident or design, the antagonism becomes so convoluted that by the conclusion it's difficult to recall why any of these attacks and deaths have occurred at all, as if it didn't really matter when the point of such brutality was an end in itself.
Not that Colors had it all its own way, as it remained a flawed effort. After a while most of the action consists of African American and Hispanic actors being arrested, complete with assumings of the position, throwings over the front of cars, and pattings down to look for concealed drugs or weapons. Some of that cast were genuine gang members, hired to ensure the authentic locations the production used were not disrupted by aggrieved hoodlums seeking them to justify their presence on the gang turf. But once you'd seen one scene of Sean Penn roughing up one suspect, you'd pretty much seen them all, and that repetition tended to go against the overall engagement with the plot, no matter that Hopper threw in an action sequence at regular intervals.
Also less than convincing was McGavin's romance with a local Hispanic girl, Louisa (Maria Conchita Alonso, who went on to have words to say about her co-star over the next decades), where it was presumably intended to soften his persona from the asshole cop biting heads off anyone not in uniform to a more amenable frame of mind, but once you find out Louisa's big secret it reflected less well on her and far less well on the movie's attitudes since she was the sole significant female character. With all that in mind, you'd anticipate a car wreck of a movie pulling in all sorts of directions, yet somehow, though it sprawled across two hours instead of a punchier ninety minutes, Hopper and his crew held it together and delivered a film that would appeal to the sociologists as much as those seeking a gritty, if sundrenched, cop thriller with a yearning for a peaceful community uppermost in its thoughts. That it refused to offer up solutions was not its fault, but it did identify the drawbacks and crossed its fingers that would be enough. Music by Herbie Hancock and the best 1988 West Coast rap they could get.
[Second Sight's Blu-ray looks as good as it ever did, with as extras interviews with the film's writer and adviser.]
One of the biggest cult stars of all time, he began his career as an actor in the fifties, a proponent of "The Method" which was popular at the time, and a good friend of James Dean, who he appeared with in Giant and Rebel without a Cause. He gradually moved to larger roles - including Gunfight at the OK Corral, Night Tide, Queen of Blood, The Trip and Hang 'Em High - until the late sixties and his directorial debut Easy Rider. The film was a sensation, shaking up Hollywood and becoming an instant classic, but Hopper's increasing dependence on drugs meant he had trouble following up that success as his next work, The Last Movie, was a notorious flop.