April 12, 2012

When legendary freakazoid Dennis Hopper dried out and went straight a couple of years ago, his acting career understandably got back into long-delayed gear; for a while, it seemed as though every other Hollywood movie had Hopper in a juicy supporting role (Hoosiers, River’s Edge, Blue Velvet).

It was inevitable that Hopper would try to revive his directing career, which had blossomed with the epoch-making Easy Rider and then crashed and burned with one of the most notorious flops of all time, The Last Movie. Apparently it was Sean Penn’s idea to recruit Hopper to direct Colors, a cop movie about gangs in East Los Angeles.

This combination of card-carrying bad dudes would seem to promise a combustible collaboration, especially with Robert Duvall, himself a Hollywood renegade, added to the mix. As it turns out, given its already explosive subject matter, Colors has gobs of gutter-level power. It’s also often inarticulate, and it operates only under the loosest of structures.

Penn and Duvall play cops, partners in the war zone. Penn is a cocky young strutter who attacks petty criminals with overt sadism; his girlfriend (Maria Conchita Alonso) tells him, “You have a mean heart.” Duvall is a year away from retirement, and he takes a slower approach, content to throw the little fishes back in the water in hopes of making a really big catch.

These two cops could almost be seen as different parts of Dennis Hopper’s personality. Penn is the hot-blooded kid who thinks he needs “the edge” to do his job well; Duvall warns him that he went through the same kind of insanity himself once, “and what I remember most from that time is regrets.” Hopper directs this relationship with the authenticity of one who has been there and back.

The movie is so gritty and relentless, you may not notice how choppy the actual storytelling is. Hopper is stronger at finding the inside of individual moments, such as the terror of a bust that goes bad when the wrong man is shot, or a dying cop’s face bleached out by the harsh white light of a police helicopter. Overall, Colors may not quite hang together, but the devotion of the actors, the punchy music of Herbie Hancock, the late-afternoon cinematography of Haskell Wexler, all combine to create some heat. Dennis Hopper, it seems, has not made his last movie.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1988

And it was even a box-office success. Hopper did direct again, and seemed to settle comfortably into his aging-celebrity role. This movie’s a mess, but on some level it got the job done, and became a key part of the man’s rehab.