If last September's End of Watch and its $41 million domestic gross was any indication, police procedural movies have never been bigger or more lucrative, and their history never as storied. This week marks the 25th anniversary of the cop drama Colors' rise to number one at the U.S. box office (the weekend of April 29th- May 1st 1988), ousting Tim Burton's eclectic Beetlejuice and its four week reign at the top.
Directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall, Colors was a film with a heavy pedigree, and thus, clout – the film was shot by two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler and scored by the great Herbie Hancock.
The film dealt with a serious issue, that being the escalating Los Angeles wars between the Bloods and the Crips, and sanitized it in a gritty fashion for multiplex audiences; the two lead characters are white men who seem bred from a different era. In many ways, Colors paved the way for the all too familiar cop movie formula, a narrative easily identifiable for those who seek out films about justice being upheld and served.
As in Colors, movies of this ilk – End of Watch, Training Day, etc. – follow the unspoken rules of the genre (with slight alterations if necessary), the first being that we follow two partners who spend their work week stuck in a confined space, i.e. a cop car. The partners can be of the same race, thus provoking a story about them vs the others or their neverending ability to understand the others, or of different races, which provides the screenplay with cutesy, occasionally comical back-and-forth jokes about the stereotypes their races have inherited.
There is usually a focal love interest for one of the men that is meant to humanize or complicate the character's personal life. Give narrative complexity credit to Colors where credit is due: Penn's character becomes smitten and soon after sleeps with a woman who has family members on “the bad side.” This girl will be involved in a double date with her new beau, his partner, and his partner's wife (they will talk about how much they love her and how she's perfect for him) which will result in a warm scene which implies impending doom up ahead.
There must also be villains in the story, not quite faceless but loosely drawn enough to represent the dangerous and often ominous gang mentality. We're taught that it's not about who they are, but rather the sheer number of them, that makes them so dangerous. When it came to the actors playing the gang members, Colors' casting department excelled, as it proved to be a great showcase for young up-and- comers such as Damon Wayans, Mario Lopez, and as the bad ass leader with few lines, Don Cheadle. Even Tony Todd shows up shows up for one scene as a fed-up Vietnam veteran, cursing out cops who aren't, in his opinion, doing enough to change the environment of the streets.
It is also imperative that scenes involving gang members give us a broad overview of their culture, whether that be through drug use, drinking, or fighting as a ritualistic form of initiation. Most elements of character empathy are excised from the screenplay's final draft.
There should also be a moment in the film where the younger partner, up until now a hip and cool, know it all fast talker, comes face to face with the grim reality of the crumminess of his chosen occupation; the officer will either realize the crookedness of his fellow partner or the absurdity of his assigned predicament. By the film's conclusion, one of the two cops we've grown to love will be killed in the line of duty in a tragic but hollow scene that attempts to make gang violence ever the more real by affecting one of our own. The fallen officer will be more often than not the older of the two gentlemen – it helps if he's close to retirement and eager to escape his dangerous surroundings – as the younger hot shot is spared and subsequently hardened as a result. He will live to fight another day as he quietly grows into the role of his now deceased partner.
Viewed in 2013, Colors is an enjoyably pact film which hits all of its marks and maintains its serious tone. However, there is a sense that the film wishes to be culturally important as well: the opening on-screen text featuring statistics on violence confirms this. Its heavy dramatic set-ups (a cop accidentally shoots and kills the wrong man in the act of lovemaking), poignant images (a young gang affiliate is reprimanded in front of a mural of Jesus Christ), and layered characterizations (older partner accuses younger partner of being just like the men they're trying to catch) make their claim as noble parts in a film demanding to be seen.
It is unfortunate then that today it feels like something we've seen before, told in a more fluid and impactful way. Ultimately, it plays as a film about the violence gangs produce rather than as an investigation into why they produce it. Colors has elaborate car chases action sequences to please the masses, but the weightier sensibilities play less effectively today than does the monumental Ice-T song of the same name.