Los Angeles in the 80s. Beneath the California glamour that the rest of America thinks about when they think about L.A., a war is brewing. Bloods vs Crips vs the 21st Street Gang. For those living in the poorest sections of the city, gangs provide everything that mainstream society refuses to provide: money, a chance to belong, a chance to advance. The only drawback is that you’ll probably die before you turn thirty. Two cops — veteran Hodges (Robert Duvall) and rookie McGavin (Sean Penn) — spend their days patrolling a potential war zone. Hodges tries to maintain the peace, encouraging the gangs to stay in their own territory and treat each other with respect. McGavin is aggressive and cocky, the type of cop who seems to be destined to end up on the evening news. With only a year to go before his retirement, Hodges tries to teach McGavin how to be a better cop while the gangs continue to target and kill each other. The cycle continues.
Colors was one of the first and best-known of the “modern gang” films. It was also Dennis Hopper’s return to directing, 17 years after the notorious, drug-fueled disaster of The Last Movie. Hopper took an almost documentary approach to Colors, eschewing, for the most part, melodrama and instead focusing on the day-to-day monotony of life in a war zone. There are parts of Colors that are almost deliberately boring, with Hodges and McGavin driving through L.A. and trying to stop trouble before it happens. Hopper portrays Hodges and McGavin as being soldiers in a war that can’t be won, combatants in a concrete Vietnam. Colors is nearly 20 years old but it holds up. It’s a tough and gritty film that works because of the strong performances of Duvall and Penn. The legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler vividly captures the harshness of life in the inner city. Actual gang members served as extras, adding to the film’s authentic, documentary feel. Among the actors playing gang members, Don Cheadle, Trinidad Silva, Glenn Plummer, and Courtney Gains all make a definite impression. In a small but important role, Maria Conchita Alonso stands in for everyone who is not a cop and who is not a gang member but who is still trapped by their endless conflict.
One person who was not impressed by Colors was future director John Singleton. Boyz ‘n The Hood was largely written as a response to Colors‘s portrait of life in South Central Los Angeles.