The statistics that flash onto the screen before the action begins are shocking. Last year there were 387 gang-related killings in greater Los Angeles—more than all the homicides in Europe. In the L.A. area, about 600 rival street gangs fight to control a lucrative trade in the cocaine derivative known as crack. Often they are betterarmed than the police. Just minutes away from the Porsche-and-palm playgrounds of the city’s affluent suburbs, there are inner-city streets that have more in common with Beirut than with Beverly Hills. And Colors, a drama about gang violence in Los Angeles, provides an eye-opening excursion into the combat zone. As the movie opened across North America last week, its rude smack of authenticity raised a flush of controversy. Members of the Guardian Angels, sporting their familiar red berets, picketed the Malibu mansion of Colors star Sean Penn and his wife, Madonna. They denounced the movie as “a recruitment film” for street gangs.
Colors director Dennis Hopper— whose 1969 hit Easy Rider became an epitaph for that joy-riding generation— has once again exposed a raw nerve in the American psyche. Colors was filmed on location in some of Los Angeles’ most dangerous neighborhoods, with extras recruited from the gangs themselves. The gangs fall under two warring factions, one dressing in blue, and the
other in red—which explains the movie’s title. At times the fictional violence in Colors was just a shot away from the real thing. On two separate weekends gang members slated to appear as extras in the movie were murdered. Each incident was the type of drive-by shooting featured in the script—a volley of gunfire from a passing car.
The movie’s story centres on two partners from the L.A. Police Department: good cop Bob (Robert Duvall) and bad cop Danny (Sean Penn). Ingeniously typecast, Penn portrays an obnoxious rookie who beats up offenders at the slightest provocation. Duvall is brilliant as Bob, a family man who becomes increasingly impatient with his partner’s impetuous behavior. The story is a variation on the shakedown-showdown formula of Miami Vice, complete with spectacular chase scenes and a silly romantic subplot between Danny and a Hispanic waitress. But with Colors, the story serves only as a shell—the empty casing left behind by a shotgun blast of explosive images and dialogue.
The camera explores a graffiti jungle where children wield cans of spray paint while teenagers unload their frustrations with Uzi submachine-guns. The police call them “gang-bangers” because they tend to kill people in groups. They have names such as Rocket, Dogman and Shooter. And they speak a slang as vivid and impenetrable as the tangle of Day-Glo graffiti that surrounds them. The police compete with minimalist profanities that escalate into absurdity. Their humor is a far cry from TV’s Bar-
ney Miller—“What I need is a shot of Demerol and some clean sheets,” complains one officer.
Although Bob is clearly the hero, Hopper avoids passing moral judgment or taking sides. The police have their own clubhouse fraternity, which is more polite but no less barbaric than the enemy’s. Both sides are armed to the teeth; both try to outgun their enemies with huge arsenals; both kill innocent victims. If anything, the movie paints a more attractive picture of the gangs than of the police. They have more fun. They are more fashionable. They have the guerrilla rhythms of ghetto z culture—and the movie’s sound 8 track—on their side: one couple ^ makes love to music so loud that 1 they fail to hear the police batter« ing down the door.
Î The police are portrayed as I a military force of sincere but hapless foreign invaders. More than one analogy is made to the war in Vietnam, and the final firefight takes place under the white glare of helicopter floodlights. But unlike such movies as Platoon, which aim to purge the festering trauma of a lost war, Colors examines a fresh wound. And the stinging rap song that begins and ends the movie poses a defiant challenge to those who would ignore the “nightmare-walking, psychopath-talking” outlaws of the ghetto. Caustic, cruel and perversely fascinating, Colors is like an initiation rite that offers no redemption—and no escape.
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