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Colors (1988) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

danny hodges gang gangs

Principal social theme: violence/gangs

Orion. R rating. Featuring: Robert Duvall, Sean Penn, Maria Conchita Alonso, Randy Brooks, Grand Bush, Don Cheadle, Rudy Ramos, Trinidad Silva, Damon Wayans, Glenn Plummer, Sy Richardson, Geraldo Mejia, Bruce Beatty, Charles Walker, Sherman Augustus, Fred Asparagus; Written by Michael Schiffer and Richard Dilello. Cinematography by Haskell Wexler. Edited by Robert Estrin. Music by Herbie Hancock. Song “Colors” written and performed by Ice-T. Produced by Robert H. Solo and Paul Lewis. Directed by Dennis Hopper. Color. 127 minutes (original version); 120 minutes (revised version).


When initially released to theaters, this 1988 portrait of Los Angeles street gangs provoked riots in a number of West Coast urban theaters, not so much because of the film itself, but because rival gangs turned out to see it and their rivalry spilled over. Nevertheless, Orion studio edited out about six and a half minutes of violent footage (and some sex scenes) before its general release. This footage was later restored on video. Colors gained a reputation as one of the most realistic portraits of youth gangs, although some critics regarded it as an updated variation of Dragnet with a rap score.


An opening scrawl describes how the Los Angeles police force has formed a special division to deal with the problem of youth gangs. The unit is called CRASH, for “Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums,” and it contains 250 men. The total membership of the street gangs, however, exceeds 70,000. Danny McGavin (Sean Penn), a cocky young rookie added to CRASH is paired with Bob Hodges (Robert Duvall), a wily veteran one year away from retirement. Danny is a gung-ho dynamo, and Hodges tries to slow him down to focus on the big picture and to gain the respect of the youth on the street. A bloody turf war in the barrios of East L.A. has developed between the two most active gangs, who fly their rival colors, red and blue. A series of night-time drive-by shootings sets the community on edge. After a scuffle, Danny makes his first collar, a young thug nicknamed “High Top,” and he is furious when Hodges lets him go after a warning. It later turns out that High Top is identified as a top drug courier. When their police car is hit with a rock, Hodges demonstrates his style in identifying the culprit. They also meet Philipe, a young Hispanic they hope to prevent from becoming a gang member. When another drive-by shooting occurs, Danny pursues the culprits in a wild chase through the back alleys of East L.A. The killer’s car finally crashes and burns, but though Danny loses control and also crashes, he and Hodges are unhurt. Hodges invites his new partner to dinner. Danny invites a local waitress, Louisa, to come as his date. Hodges comes to believe that he and his new partner are not making a good team after Danny gets out of control and roughs up a handcuffed suspect. Louisa also breaks off with Danny after he spray paints the face of a kid he is arresting. When Danny asks her for the reason, she tells him the kid is her cousin. The confrontations between the gangs become increasingly more violent. Rocket, one of the gang leaders, organizes a major hit. Philipe joins a rival gang just before they launch a revenge strike against Rocket’s headquarters. Rocket and his top henchmen are wiped out, but the police ambush the rival gang while they celebrate their victory. Bob Hodges is hit in the raid, and he dies as Danny tries to comfort him. The story ends a few months later. Danny has a new partner, a boisterous rookie. A more serious Danny has adopted the ways of Hodges and tries to break in his new partner using the same advise and anecdotes that Hodges told him. Meanwhile, life on the streets continues with the same pattern of pointless violence.


In order to film in the heart of gang territory in East L.A., director Dennis Hopper employed actual gang members to serve as advisors, protectors, and extras. In fact, two of these hired hands were killed in gang violence during the film’s shooting schedule. Authentic gang hangouts were also used in the filming. So Colors comes very close to documenting the lifestyle, language, and nihilistic philosophy of these gangs. The dialogue of the street toughs is sometimes hard to follow, as well as being reliant on the use of obscenity. The cinematography is gritty, dark, and claustrophobic, even the scenes in Griffith Park. One of the major goals of Colors was to call attention to the growing gang phenomenon, largely ignored by middle America. It succeeded in this even if it did not suggest any solutions. So the picture focuses totally on the problem. The rap song, “Colors” by Ice-T, succinctly sums up the gang philosophy, living only for revenge and for their colors. The drug trade is only a means to an end. Each time one gang’s leadership is exterminated, others quickly take their place. The character of Philipe serves as a metaphor for how each successive generation is drawn into gangs. Since CRASH proved unable to guide, frighten, or inspire the boy not to fall in with the street thugs, how can they stem the flow? The police seem to be fighting an endless holding action, with the phrase “Operation Safe Streets” expressing only a faint hope. The ending of Colors is somewhat predictable, following the pattern set by Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), in which the younger John Agar takes over for the fallen John Wayne. It is also not entirely convincing, since Sean Penn’s Danny still has a considerable way to go to match the streetwise instincts and experience that Robert Duvall’s Hodges had developed. One wonders if Danny could ever possibly match his rapport with the youth in the streets.

Coltrane, Alice (MacLeod; aka Sagitananda Turiya) [next] [back] Colorimetry - Trichromatic Theory of Color Vision, Color Matching Functions, Cone fundamentals, CIE

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