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'Colors'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 15, 1988

 


Director:
Dennis Hopper
Cast:
Sean Penn;
Robert Duvall;
Maria Conchita Alonso;
Randy Brooks;
Don Cheadle
R
Under 17 restricted


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If Dennis Hopper's "Colors" weren't so steeped in violent nihilism you might be tempted to call it serene. The subject of the movie, which stars Sean Penn and Robert Duvall, is the war between rival gangs on Los Angeles' impoverished East Side. But in spite of the atmosphere of fearful anticipation surrounding the film's release, it must be the least incendiary film about gang life ever made.

"Colors," which was shot from a script by Michael Schiffer, has a deep-down ferocity. But the film's surface is placid, poised, controlled -- all of which seems deeply strange for a film on this subject and stranger still for a film from Dennis Hopper.

Restraint is not a virtue that we associate with Dennis Hopper, but this quality of cool detachment is what makes "Colors" fascinating to watch -- even when you have no idea where it's going or what Hopper is trying to tell you.

The central figures are a pair of cops, played by Penn and Duvall, assigned to C.R.A.S.H., the Los Angeles task force on gangs. Hodges, the older of the two, is a battle-toughened vet, but unlike a lot of similar characters we've seen, he's not a cynical burnout. With his Rodinesque skull, Duvall looks more sculptural than ever, and he has a magnetism and authority here that he hasn't shown in some time. And he gives Hodges, and the movie, a strong, even-keeled center.

Over the years on the gang beat Hodges has created a system of credits with the youths. But his hotshot new partner, McGavin, wants to get tougher with the gangs. He's tired of Hodges' style of nonconfrontation, and in one scene, after catching one baby-faced gangster spray-painting a wall, he points the can at the kid's face and gives it a nice coat of green.

This kind of thing doesn't win McGavin any friends on the street. In addition, it spoils his relationship with the local chicana beauty, played by Maria Conchita Alonso (who's not well-used here). Penn gives McGavin a revved-up, just-ready-to-explode energy, but he never lets the character go over the top. Hodges reacts to the kid's recklessness as more than an endangerment to himself, though -- he doesn't like the way he operates.

The relationship between the two cops and the tension created by the clash of their styles is the movie's main point of interest. And in the scenes between the actors, Hopper lets the camera roll, letting the details of behavior carry the moment.

Hopper doesn't jam the movie in your face. The mean streets these cops walk down are portrayed as a graffiti-scrawled wasteland, but Hopper doesn't hype the atmosphere. It's not set in a hallucinatory, pop-mythic landscape like Walter Hill's "The Warriors."

Instead, the film's rhythms are leisurely and diffuse; the colors in Haskell Wexler's cinematography aren't hot, and the L.A. light here doesn't have the spit-on-a-griddle vibrancy that it does in other L.A. movies. Instead, the atmosphere is moody, dampened down. And what you get from this is the texture of endless days spent hanging out, fried on PCP or weed, days spent cruising around in the patrol car, logging in the hours, days when nothing happens.

With lesser actors this approach might be suicide. But for the most part it works well here, and as a result, the information you carry away from these characters is different from what you might discover if a more conventional method were applied.

There's great pleasure in watching these two actors work. And Hopper, a great actor himself, knows what they need to thrive. But what an actor brings to a movie isn't the same thing as what a director brings. The movie lacks a sure sense of purpose and direction, and, watching it, you can't help but feel that Hopper, by stepping back and refusing to assert his own point of view, has on some essential level abdicated his responsibility as a director.

Using this approach also allows Hopper to avoid passing judgment on the gangs, and while he's evenhanded in this regard, you may also feel that the movie is short on insights about gang life, and that Hopper's faux documentary approach fails to provide either the information that a true documentary might or the satisfactions of a fully realized drama -- that in falling between two stools it falls apart.

Yet even if the movie never coalesces, it strikes out in an original direction, and at nearly every turn avoids the predictable and the banal. This is an eccentric piece of filmmaking -- violent, destabilizing and, in places, downright inexplicable. Not the Dennis Hopper movie you'd expect, but still, a Dennis Hopper movie.

Colors, at area theaters, is rated R and contains obscenities, and scenes of violence and drug use.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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