Bob Hodges (Robert Duvall) is a career veteran who works for the C.R.A.S.H. (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) division, and is greatly respected by his peers and the community. As the film begins, he is paired with an upstart rookie named Danny McGavin (Sean Penn), who is brash and aggressive towards the local residents.
They are both thrown into conflict when the murder of one of a hoodlum causes racial tensions to boil over, and both cops are caught in the middle of a war between the Bloods, Crips, and Barrio gangs. Both Hodges and McGavin have to work together to stop the conflict on the streets and deal with pressures both outside and within their own department. McGavin is also conflicted about his relationship with Louisa (Maria Conchita Alonso), a Latino waitress who is bothered by his attitude towards the gangs.
The film was the first directorial work by Hopper in 18 years, and was notable for its Real Life Writes the Plot elements (which included, among other things, real gang members being hired as extras). The film also caused controversy due to Penn's antics during filming — he was arrested and sentenced to 39 days in jail for punching an extra on set.
"Tropes. The War Is Here. The War is Now.:"
- And the Adventure Continues: The film ends with McGavin and his new partner going back on patrol.
- Book-Ends: McGavin begins training a rookie who acts much him at the end of the film, just like Hodges did with McGavin at its beginning.
- Cluster F-Bomb: McGavin does this frequently.
- Cowboy Cop: McGavin. He eventually mellows out later in the film, though.
- Destination Defenestration: A character is thrown through a window.
- Family-Unfriendly Violence: Thrown through a window, shot and killed during sex, gang violence, etc.
- Fanservice: A sex scene between Penn and Alonso.
- Fanservice Extra: A naked woman is among those arrested when the police raid a drug house. She does absolutely nothing in the scene — or for the scene — except be the subject of Penn's Male Gaze. The actress is even uncredited.
- Gangbangers: The film deals with the ongoing threat of gang warfare in L.A.
- Gangland Drive-By: Naturally for a urban crime drama set in L.A., (the city that popularized the drive by shooting) they show up.
- Gangsta Rap: IceT did the theme song.
- Heroic B.S.O.D.: McGavin gets it after Hodges dies at the end of the film.
- Miranda Rights: It's a cops and criminals film, after all.
- Old Cop, Young Cop: Hodges and McGavin. At the end of the film, McGavin assumes the senior role and begins teaching a young recruit himself.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: Critics thought the scene of the gang gunfire interrupting the funeral wasn't realistic. Shortly after the scene wrapped, an actual church service a short distance away was in fact interrupted by gang gunfire.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Hodges (the "blue" seasoned veteran, who stresses a by-the-book approach and friendly relations with the people he meets) is paired with McGavin (the "red" hot-headed recruit who offends everyone he comes in contact with).
- Scary Black Man: Rocket. Many of the characters in the film are gangbangers and cold blooded killers. However most have a personality and a "live for today since I may not be here tomorrow" attitude. But Rocket spends virtually the whole movie just sitting and listening to 80's era gangsta rap with a blank expression on his face. It's obvious even other members of his own gang are terrified of him.
- Taking the Bullet: Hodges takes the bullet meant for McGavin when the gunman hired by the Crips tries to shoot the latter, and dies as a result.