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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 15, 1988


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

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Uzi-toting gangs killing for territory, vengeance or sheer bravado; these are a few of back-street L.A.'s favorite things. Director Dennis Hopper likes them too in "Colors," a movie crackling with timeliness. On location in the blasted world of barrios, crack deals and gun battles, he covers the mayhem with unadorned, documentary immediacy that transcends otherwise formulaic cop-fare.

Cops Robert Duvall and Sean Penn bring high presence to these mean streets. It's engaging to see the ironies develop between Duvall as aging cop Bob Hodges and Penn as his upstart partner Danny McGavin, who wants to punch his way into the ghettos, hose out the scum and come out of it a hero. It's an exhilarating sparring match between Duvall's workmanlike fine-tuning and Penn's raw energy.

They're part of C.R.A.S.H. (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), the tiny Los Angeles police task force meant to stem the thousands of gang members who favor industrial-strength firepower. A daily beat might include chasing through trash-filled alleys, bashing crack dealers' heads against car fenders, ducking stray bullets and cleaning up after bloody ambushes. It's a circular, dispiriting, dangerous existence for both sides. And to see "Colors" is to watch hopelessness in action, or to live in, as Hodges calls it, "Bozoland."

Through cinematographer Haskell Wexler's swooping, tracking and appropriately unflattering lens, Hopper follows the action from moving cars, helicopers and sidewalks. You can feel his restless manic spirit hanging out with the dudes. So you'll meet -- and spend time with -- the drug dealer High Top, the Mexican woman McGavin courts (Maria Conchita Alonso),and the friendly-deadly wheeler-dealer Frog (Trinidad Silva), who wants to keep his little brother out of gang trouble.

But despite Hopper's mostly frank direction, "Colors" sometimes comes across as romanticized, "West Side Story," bad-boy-cult-movie stuff. When two rival gangs, called in for police questioning, face off on either side of prison bars, waving scarf insignia as a high-drive rap song ("Colors") pounds over the sound system, it's uncomfortably, almost premeditatedly stirring. And this world of religious murals, broken-glass alleys, arsenal-laden speeding vans and enough blue language to repaint the sky, make the nation's gang capital, even through an unromantic lens, seem almost like a cool place.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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