The quiet power of Robert Duvall's performance and the bitter veracity of the locations of "Colors" (citywide), shot on weed-choked hills and graffiti-splashed culverts near downtown Los Angeles, gives a thin movie a substance that its screenplay is hard put to support.
With its knowing references to the Crips and the Bloods--rival L.A. gangs whose blue or red "colors" identify them--its nighttime scenes of violent drive-bys and its daytime shots of grade-schoolers dealing crack, "Colors" may feel like a bloody slice of the 11 o'clock news. But make no mistake, it's a movie and, for all its swirling motion and authentic look, a disappointingly superficial one.
It's not a question of exploitation. Director Dennis Hopper and producer Robert Solo ("Bad Boys") have done nothing to make gangs or gang membership look appealing. Instead, they have made them Rebels Without a Context by doing nothing to sketch in the social and economic pressures that lead kids to see gangs as the only brotherhood in a bleak and hopeless world.
The film makers have taken care that the casting, the look, the music and the street jargon of "Colors" seem authentic. Thanks especially to Haskell Wexler's unshowy and brilliantly taut cinematography and to Hopper's direction, especially in his action scenes, it does.
However, no one took the time to work with Michael Schiffer's screenplay (from his own story, co-written with Richard DiLello), and as a result "Colors" is melodrama in realistic clothing; decent intentions whittled down to soap opera size by the flatness and predictability of the writing which undercuts much of the care and artistry built around it.
Schiffer has built his action-oriented story of warring gangs on the old cop-young rookie device, centering on a pair of polar opposites--a well-matched Duvall and Sean Penn--in the Los Angeles Police Department's CRASH unit (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums).
Cockily fighting for his "righteous collars," Penn is both naive and malicious, the kind of cop who will spray a young gang member--stopped in the act of painting graffiti--full in the face with his own paint can. Duvall, fair and tough but cautious, is willing to let the minor stuff go by in the hope of building connections to the community and of doing a little good.
Is there a television-wise 8-year-old who can't tell us what will happen? Do we need to load the scale further with the information that Duvall has a new baby, a great wife and hardly any time before retirement?
Somehow, and without an unnecessary move, Duvall makes this walking cliche into a memorable, honorable man whom we worry about deeply. (His last excessively directed scene may also make us worry about him in the hands of an actor-director not known for his restraint. Where was that editor when we needed him most? He was certainly on top of things throughout the movie's violent action scenes and in its heart-stopping car chase.)
It's when you begin to realize that Duvall and slow-learner Penn are virtually the only characters calibrated to catch our sympathies that you become uncomfortably aware of the movie's tunnel-vision point of view. For a film set in Watts and South-Central Los Angeles, whose law-abiding inhabitants bear the brunt of drug-related violence every week, these victims remain faceless and undifferentiated. "Colors" has an "us-versus-them" mentality but, peculiarly, the "us" don't seem to be its black or Latino parents or inner-city residents. If the movie has a martyr, you can be sure that martyr will be in a policeman's uniform, not a housecoat or a pair of out-at-the knee jeans.
There is, however, a featured role for the warm, twinkly Maria Conchita Alonso, for whom the script creates an utterly mystifying romance with Penn. His character is so dumb that he offers to walk her to her house after a date, saying gallantly, "This is a bad area," forcing her to explain that this is her barrio . You can't imagine many Latinas who will be pleased with the appallingly (insultingly) liiited choices her character is given by the movie's conclusion.
Without complexity to its characters, with little balance and without a hint of the personal, family or community issues involved, "Colors" becomes a movie that never has to ask "Why?"--a vivid, noisy shell of a film filled with eager young actors rattling along on the surface of a lethally important subject.
With the firestorm of controversy that has sprung up over this opening on its home turf, the bitter truth is that "Colors" is a film that might otherwise have slipped unnoticed into B-movie oblivion. If the volatile climate of the day has made it a cause celebre , it's a shame that--given the unchallenged right of a film maker to say what he or she wishes--these particular artists had so little of lasting value to say.