Dennis Hopper’s Colors may be a buddy cop flick on the surface, but it’s hardly typical high-concept Hollywood material. It does have a token overarching plot (involving a mismatched pair of cops tracing the perpetrators of a drive-by shooting), but it’s merely a loose thread to hold the movie together. If neither a character study nor a plot-driven thriller, Colors is a portrait of an issue, a setting, a problem.
A prototype for the HBO series The Wire, Colors is actually a portrait of the deteriorated, hopeless situation in a failed American city lost to the drug trade. But unlike The Wire, which deeply explores the economics of how and why gangs function as organizations, Colors doesn’t offer much detail on how they operate and what they do. However sensitive and balanced Colors may be, it still takes the point of view of predominantly white law enforcement. As such, it’s easy to see why filmmakers shortly turned to films like Menace II Society and Boyz N the Hood, which would look at some of the same issues from the other side of the milieu.
The interesting title most obviously refers to the term for a nation’s flag (tying in with the themes of war and the institution that wage it) or the signature colors of three major warring L.A. gangs: the Bloods (red), Crips (blue), and a Latino gang (white). The real colors that divide these groups are, of course, race. The one sign of equality in late 80s L.A. is that nearly everyone calls each other Holmes.
The narrative is loosely hung on several cliches, most notably the trope of veteran cop saddled with rookie partner. Officer Hodges (Duvall) is bitter at being drafted into the L.A.P.D. C.R.A.S.H. anti-gang program, after a lifetime of service that ought to have qualified him for sensible hours, a safe desk job, and more time with his family. Officer McGavin (Penn) is an aggressive, preening dandy, eager to attack the gang problem with the blunt tool of incarceration.
But it’s not long after the movie sets up these cliches that it begins to knock them down. The ostensibly wizened Hodges makes a critical mistake, setting free a young gang member on the assumption that a brush with the law would scare him straight, while simultaneously intending it to be a lesson to the headstrong book ’em-type McGavin — but he turns out to have been a major player in the shooting. Another cliche short-circuited: McGavin romances a local girl from the barrio (Maria Conchita Alonso), but she turns out to be far from the madonna he imagined. Not only that, she rejects him anyway.
Colors ends on a very down beat, not just the death of a significant character, but what comes after. McGavin is forced into the position of imparting wisdom before he’s earned much himself. The film ends with a long shot held on his face (echoed much later in the final shot of mind Michael Clayton as he most likely ponders his ineffectiveness.
Of note are early appearances by Don Cheadle and Damon Wayans, the latter featuring in a stand-out surreal sequence in which his character T-Bone is out of his mind on drugs. Herbie Hancock’s score has not dated well, nor has the vintage rap soundtrack, including the angry theme song by Ice-T. The opening credits are set to “One Time One Night” by the local L.A. band Los Lobos.
Quarantine, remade by director John Erick Dowdle (co-written with brother Drew) from the Spanish movie REC (2007), follows in the now-firmly established horror fauxmentary tradition. Previous entries Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead, and Cloverfield are all ostensibly comprised of found footage recovered from cameras found at the scenes of horrific disasters. Quarantine’s only wrinkle is that, unlike its predecessors, this pretense is not explained as such on screen. Quarantine’s conceit is that we’re watching raw footage, edited in-camera, abandoned by the late characters themselves. There are no implied, unseen survivors that picked up the pieces.
Cloverfield never provided a convincing psychological motivation to explain why its cinematographer would keep his camcorder running throughout his desperate flight from toxic alien creatures swarming across Manhattan. A much more intelligent examination of an obsession to capture everything on video came from the less expected source of none other than the zombie godfather himself, George A. Romero. His underrated Diary of the Dead features a group of young film students with pretensions to becoming great documentarian filmmakers, and what better subject to document than their own first-hand experiences during a zombie outbreak? Although Cloverfield had significantly greater budgetary resources at its disposal to create eerily realistic images of Manhattan crumbling beneath the feet of a Godzilla-like monster, Quarantine follows in the more modest footsteps of Diary of the Dead in striving for greater psychological realism.
In story terms, the justifications for Quarantine’s characters to keep filming continually evolve as their circumstances worsen. Like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Quarantine features members of the press as main characters. The first full 12 minutes are devoted to reporter Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) and cameraman Scott Percival (Steve Harris) shooting a television news segment on a local fire department. By the time an emergency finally arrives and the duo hitches a ride along to the scene, we’ve become fully endeared to the bubbly, spunky reporter and the charmingly filthy firefighters. As the routine investigation turns into a confrontation with a feral-seeming elderly woman, Angela senses the opportunity to score some sensational footage. It’s clear she fancies herself a more serious reporter.
Later, as the elderly woman is revealed to be patient zero for a new highly contagious disease, the Los Angeles Center for Communicable Disease quickly quarantines the building, cutting off all their communications and falsely reporting to the public that it has been evacuated. The trapped tenants are a random assortment of Los Angelans: an opera tutor and his hot young live-in protégé, a veterinarian, a cleaning woman, a mom and her baby (whom we meet again near the end of the film, in horrifying transformed fashion), toy dogs, an immigrant couple, and… what’s missing? That’s right! If this is L.A., where are all the unemployed actors?
Building manager Yuri (Rade Serbedzija) keeps conveniently remembering exits (including a back door and a basement entry to a sewer), but all are blocked. By this point, Angela has morphed into a righteous crusader wanting more footage as proof of the city’s outrage against justice and human rights. But when the virus spreads to most of the people trapped in the building, the power goes off, and panic truly sets in, Angela’s motivations switch to pure survival. The camera now only proves useful as a source of light, and anything captured on video happens by chance as they frantically navigate through the corridors. Then, in true horror movie fashion, things get even worse. In a scene rivaling the nail-biting basement sequence in Silence of the Lambs, Angela and Scott find themselves barricaded in a pitch-black attic with their camera’s lamp broken. The remainder of the movie is seen through the greenish haze of their night-vision filter.
While Quarantine may seem to tip its hat to horror tradition as protagonist Angela sheds layers of clothing over the course of her ordeal, the movie is actually quite subversive in showing her lose her spirit. Atypically for a horror movie protagonist, she is no plucky survivor that defeats the menace. She pretty much just breaks down.
Quarantine may be yet another in a long line of zombie flicks, but I would argue its true genre identity is as an urban nightmare. Cloverfield relived 9/11 in the form of another Godzilla and its highly toxic babies, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic envisioned swarms of giant cockroaches breeding in abandoned subway stations. Quarantine touches on another deep anxiety of urban dwellers: a viral contagion born of city filth. The entire outbreak plays out in the confines of an aging tenement building (with what seems to be a clothing sweatshop hidden in the back), a place many city slickers might recognize as home.
What made Quarantine the most frightening for me in particular was not the gore or the booga-booga scare factor, but rather the disturbing plausibility of its fictional disease. In reality, all we hear about are the dangers of diseases like HIV jumping from bushmeat to humans, and the avian or swine flu incubating in impoverished nations where people live in close quarters with animals. What about those of us living in developed, supposedly civilized cites, full of dogs, roaches, rats, and yes, a certain number of crazy nutjobs?
A hyper-evolved form of the rabies virus is the most plausible pseudo-scientific explanation I’ve yet heard for zombies, especially compared to the vaguely described Venusian radiation in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Like the “superflu” in Stephen King’s The Stand and the distilled “rage” virus in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, this strain of rabies was genetically engineered by a lone terrorist holed up in the attic of the tenement. An ominous clue is dropped halfway through the film about an unaccounted-for tenant living in the attic. When we finally meet him, he appears to have been infected for quite some time. Blind and emaciated, he scrambles around in the total darkness of his former home and laboratory (scattered with disgusting medical photos and newspaper clippings about Doomsday Cults). The creepy figure is played by the unusually tall and slender Doug Jones, most recently seen as the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four and Abe Sapien in Hellboy. I worked on the official website for Guillermo Del Toro’s marvelous Pan’s Labyrinth, for which Jones was interviewed about his experiences playing The Faun and The Pale Man; for someone that so typically plays monsters, he’s a super-nice, funny, and charming dude. I skimmed through the bonus features on the Quarantine DVD, and it’s a crying shame that he apparently wasn’t interviewed.
In place of a musical score, Quarantine features a complex sound design built around an eerily creaking, groaning old building. It also forgoes other standard movie pleasures, being a gruesome, depressing, and punishing experience. In that respect, it’s similar to how the nauseatingly (literally) bleak Blindness. In contrast, the sublime Children of Men is the rare movie nightmare set at the brink of the end of humanity that nevertheless carries a spark of uplift and hope.