Looking back at Dennis Hopper’s Colors

In 1988, Dennis Hopper directed the controversial cop drama Colors, now reissued on Blu-ray. Ryan takes a look back at a gripping film...

By the spring of 1988, several high-profile cases had brought the gang violence in Los Angeles to national attention. The fatal shootings of an 18-year-old college student and her 12-year-old neighbor were, according to a newspaper report, the 113th and 114th gang-related murders to have occurred in LA County since the start of the beginning of 1988. The previous year saw 387 people killed in gang-related incidents.

Against this backdrop came Colors, Dennis Hopper’s unflinching and disturbingly authentic crime drama starring Robert Duvall and Sean Penn. Some of the film’s harshest critics called it exploitative and voyeuristic – a calculated attempt to cash in on the real violence that was regularly making headlines. Colors’ detractors were given further fuel when reports began to circulate of violent incidents occurring in and around cinemas showing the film. Colors was even withdrawn from some Los Angeles theatres following the murder of a 19-year-old from Stockton.

But far from being an exploitation movie rushed out to cash in on headlines, Colors was only made after several months of careful research. Screenwriter Michael Schiffer, when ordered to rework Richard Di Lello’s original and very different script set in Chicago, spent weeks interviewing LA cops and gang members. He transcribed the recordings and paid careful attention to their slang and speech patterns, even working some of their jokes and anecdotes into his script. Schiffer’s approach was much like Michael Mann’s during the writing of Heat; both rode with police officers during their patrols of the city streets and took inspiration from what they saw.

The resulting screenplay was perfect for Dennis Hopper, an actor and director who was as unpredictable and uncompromising in real life as he was as an artist. Having worked with some of Hollywood’s most famous actors while still in his 20s – James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, John Wayne in True Grit, to name but two – Hopper’s addictions and wayward attitude left his career veering from success to failure. He’d captured the 60s zeitgeist with Easy Rider, but his follow-up movie, The Last Movie, was simply too eccentric to attract the same kind of popular attention. Hopper was back on top again with his mesmerising performance as a rambling photographer in Apocalypse Now in 1979, but then he spent the next four years seemingly in the grip of drug addiction.

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Having emerged from rehab in 1983, Hopper embarked on a new creative streak. His performances in Rumble Fish and The Osterman Weekend were praised, while his turn as Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet was arguably one of the most terrifying in screen history. When Hopper garnered an Oscar nomination for his role in the sports drama Hoosiers in 1986, he was ready to start directing again. And for once, Hopper’s abrasive personality helped steer what could have been a generic buddy-cop thriller into far more compelling, original territory. 

The original draft of Colors, the one written by Richard Di Lello, was still about cops and gangs, but bizarrely, the illegal substance at the centre of the picture wasn’t crack cocaine or heroin, but cough syrup.

“The first film with Orion didn’t go so well,” Hopper explained in a 1988 interview. “It was about a white cop and a black cop in Chicago, and it involved gangs – which is where the title, Colors, comes from – but they were selling cough syrup. There was a major bust to stop the terrible cough syrup problem. I said, ‘Give me a break. Make it cocaine, make it real, make it Los Angeles. This wouldn’t even make a bad episode of a television show.’”

Thankfully, Hopper got his way, and Schiffer’s rewritten screenplay closely resembled the director outlined in that meeting with Orion: an older cop paired with a hot-headed rookie, and not a bottle of cough syrup in sight. Shot entirely on location across South Central Los Angeles, Colors added to its authenticity by casting non-actors – some of them from real gangs – in smaller roles. 

The result is a film that positively pulsates with the sense of imminent danger. Robert Duvall, who plays the seasoned cop Bob Hodges, has spent years patrolling LA’s dusty sprawl, commanding respect from rival gangs and rarely stooping to using violence. We can see the consternation in Hodges’ weary eyes when he’s partnered with Sean Penn’s Danny McGavin, a new recruit who seems to permanently have one hand ready to draw his gun.

One early scene beautifully sums up the difference between the two cops. While on patrol, the pair spot some kind of drug transaction unfolding between a bunch of kids and a much older dealer. While McGavin wastes his energy aggressively patting down and threatening the dealer, Hodges quietly questions the rest of the group, teasing out information through respect rather than fear.

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What the cops can’t realise is that a storm is brewing between three rival gangs, and that they’ll soon be drawn into the midst of it. Eschewing the fast pace and glossy histrionics of most ’80s cop films, Hopper gives Colors a loose, cruising tempo. As in Easy Rider, Hopper lets his central characters stretch out and talk. Although the film’s largely told from the cops’ point of view, Hopper moves in omnipresent fashion between LA’s warring factions. Before a few members of the Crips (led by a young Don Cheadle) carry out a drive-by shooting which proves to be the movie’s inciting incident, we ride along with them and listen to them joke and bicker. In one of the film’s best scenes, we get to hang out with a few members of a Hispanic gang, led by the laid-back Frog (Trinidad Silva), as they talk about the role of the gang as a surrogate family unit. 

It’s a quasi documentary approach that humanises its characters on both sides of the law rather than hunt around for heroes and villains. Even Hodges, among the most benign and smart characters in Colors, makes mistakes from time to time. McGavin, who we initially assume to be just another cop drunk on his new-found power, matures and changes as the story progresses.

None of this is to say that Colors is without flaw. Of all the characters, Maria Conchito Alonso’s Louisa, who’s initially attracted to McGavin until the rookie’s reputation for brutality pushes them apart, is the least well drawn. The violence, although restrained and believable for the most part, gives into the excess that typified 80s action movies in one or two sequences – one of them involving a car which explodes for no obvious reason.

Despite this, the believable grit of the location shooting and Duvall’s spectacular performance constantly shine through. A locker room confrontation between Duvall and Penn positively crackles with energy. Whenever the pair get out of their unmarked patrol car (its yellow colouring earning McGavin the nickname, “Pac-Man”), the feeling that something nasty’s about to happen is constantly present. Between them, Hopper, Schiffer, Duvall and Penn relay the danger of their world.

Most cleverly of all, the film shows us seemingly disconnected events and scenes – not least the startling sight of Damon Wayans’ character, seemingly high on PCP, dancing half-naked with a giant stuffed rabbit – and later reveals that, in fact, they are all connected in a pattern that Hodges and McGavin can’t foresee. 

With the distance of time, it’s easy to forget that Colors was among the first films to realistically portray the gang violence in South Central Los Angeles. In its wake came several other dramas and thrillers that offered a similarly uncompromising view: Boyz N The Hood, Training Day and End Of Watch to name a few. In David Ayer’s End Of Watch, in particular, it’s possible to see the influence of Hopper’s 1988 film in its verite approach.

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In less positive notices – like Mike Daly’s August 1988 review published in The Age – critics argued that Colors “had no message.” While this is undoubtedly true, Colors doesn’t need to comment or condemn the events it depicts; rather, it presents us with its take of a real world situation, where a relatively small police force tries to keep a lid on intense rivalries between gangs with tens of thousands of members.

“Look,” Hopper said back in 1988, “this may not give people a lot of information – it’s not a documentary — but it`s an honest film. If people come out of the theater saying, ‘Hey, this isn`t really going on,’ they`re full of it. It is going on, and I made it as honest as I could, no dramatic license. All the busts, all the police activity, were strictly according to procedure.”

It’s this attention to detail that gives Colors a timeless edge, even if it is rooted in the culture of its age. More than 25 years on, Colors still has a fearsome power.

Colors is out on Blu-ray now in the UK courtesy of Second Sight.