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REVIEW — Colors (1988)

August 24, 2015

FilmJuice have my review of Dennis Hopper’s decidedly uneven crime drama Colors, starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall.

Colors is one of those films that I never got round to seeing, despite remembering its release and the fact that it was a really big deal at the time. You can sort of see why the film was such a big deal back in the 1980s… Dennis Hopper had left his compound, sobered up and returned to the director’s chair a new man. His first film back in charge was a hard-hitting crime drama starring a Hollywood veteran in the form of Duvall and an up-and-comer in the form of Penn. Colors was taken seriously at the time of its release as it was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to engage with gang-culture in a somewhat nuanced fashion. Since then, the film has dipped from view because a) it’s not actually very good and b) the early 1990s saw a number of African American directors (including John Singleton and Mario Van Peebles) rising to prominence and making much better and more ‘authentic’ films about the exact same themes and subject matter.

The frustrating thing about Colors is that it clearly contains some very interesting ideas. For example, rather than having the two cops face off against a whole gang and bring them to justice, the film does recognise that two white cops aren’t going to make much of a difference and so it has the police nibble ineffectually at what is quite obviously a much larger social problem. Indeed, while the film does follow a particular Crip set, you never get the impression that killing any member of the set or bringing the set to justice would make a blind bit of difference. The leader of the set is played by a very young Don Cheadle who rarely says a word and so gives the impression that he’s simply a vehicle for much larger social forces. Kill him and another guy would rise up to lead the set. Bring down the set and another would rise up to take its place. The problem is that while Colors does this type of stuff really well, it also wants to hit the beats of a traditional Hollywood genre film and so you need goodies, baddies, pathos and action scenes. A braver director would have seen these elements in the script and downplayed them but this was Hopper’s first mainstream directorial gig in a long time and he was clearly desperate not to deliver a sprawling art movie:

This is why we have a film with a non-linear plot structure that feeds unconvincingly into a moment of pathos that would have been better served by a traditional three act structure, a film about the horrors of gang violence that includes a number of ridiculously over-the-top action sequences, and a socially conscious message film that side-lines its own message in order to focus on the poorly developed man-pain of two White cops. The Dennis Hopper of Easy Rider might have been able to turn this sprawling mess into something coherent but the Hopper of the late 1980s was simply not up to the task and the films that followed in the wake of Colors were similarly uninspired and unimpressive.

Colors is being re-released on Blu-ray alongside State of Grace as part of an informal Sean Penn double-bill. Neither film is really that good but they do serve as a reminder of the types of films that used to be Hollywood’s mainstay before the beginning of the perpetual summer in which we all currently roast.

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