There is a realism about 'Colors' that haunts this disturbing picture of gang life in Los Angeles with the kind of sadness and violence that marked 'Rebel Without a Cause,' made 33 years ago.
It's perhaps most fitting that Dennis Hopper, the young star who played alongside James Dean in that classic tale of alienated teen-agers, directs this portrait of a war-torn neighborhood.
Sean Penn and Robert Duvall play a mismatched team of cops on a special anti-gang task force on the Los Angeles Police Department. Their characters' growth -- both toward each other and toward an understanding of their mission as cops -- makes this movie much more than a sensational look at street gangs, which it most certainly is.
Penn plays the hot-headed Danny, while Duvall plays the wiser and more sensitive Bob, cops with divergent views of their job in certain neighborhoods that appear more like Beirut than Los Angeles. Bob wants to extend 'credit' to the gang members: one favor exacts another. Danny just wants to smash heads.
But both are clearly overwhelmed by the level of loyalty and violence gang membership spawns. Danny quickly develops a ruthless reputation as 'Pac Man' among the gang members; his one attempt at a loving relationship with a neighborhood woman, played by Maria Conchita Alonso, ends disastrously because of his 'sadistic heart.' Bob is just hoping to make it out of his tour of duty on the task force into retirement. 'It's Bozoland. All you can do out there is try to be professional.'
The gang members, busy killing rivals or selling drugs, quickly close ranks against the intruder cops. Yet, some unique relationships do develop between gang members and the cops. In particular, Frog, played by Trinidad Silva, best articulates the gang mentality, and he best understands Bob's system of 'credit.' 'You have your Visa Card, and I have you,' he jokes.
To its members, belonging to a gang provides everything: love, support, happiness -- and a bitter price of membership. Why should they step away from this gritty and raw reality that is their lives? 'The barrio is me home,' one loyalist says.
The screenplay by Michael Schiffer is explosive; cinematographer Haskell Wexler presents scenes of Los Angeles's inner city rarely seen - buildings facades crowded with graffiti; streets filled with hard-driving music that describes the bitter truths of an urban jungle.
'Colors' is an awesome look at a state of war in one city in America. But like 'Rebel Without a Cause,' it presents the combatants with clarity, and may help define anew a generation that feels hopelessly cut off from the society within which it lives.
This film is rated R. Contains violence, sex and foul language.