#19 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
Where Martin Scorsese took the sports movie in the direction of a dark, character driven exercise of personal exploration in Raging Bull, he takes the genre in a more conventional direction in The Color of Money. The sequel to The Hustler, made 25 years after the original, is a much more straight forward sports movie than either the sports movie Scorsese made earlier as well as the movie’s immediate predecessor. It’s a lesser, simpler exercise, but it’s still buoyed by a handful of winning performances and Scorsese’s typical energetic direction as well as Thelma Schoonmaker’s exciting editing.
Fast Eddie Felson has been out of the pool game for 25 years, moving into things like liquor sales while acting as his friend Charlie had previously, being the financial backer to a pool hustler named Julian. The movie begins with Eddie selling a bourbon to the female owner of a bar while hitting on her and handing Julian twenty dollar bills as he suddenly starts losing consistently to a loud and energetic young man named Vince. Eddie sees the untapped and wild talent on display in Vince to reminds him of himself in his youth and decides that he’s going to mentor Vince.
The problem is that Vince is much wilder than Eddie was when we first knew him in The Hustler. At least the young Eddie could manage to get a game with the big honcho, Minnesota Fats, even if he loses, but Vince completely blows his own chance to make decent money by playing too big and too well against a small-time player in a poolhall, scaring off the big fish. Vince’s impulsiveness needs to be brought under control, and it’s obvious to Eddie that he can’t go through Vince himself. Instead he needs to go through Vince’s girlfriend, Carmen. She understands the needs for a more subtle approach, but just as they’re beginning to make progress, Eddie has a setback.
He finally picks up a pool cue and immediately gets hustled by a young man. That his skills have atrophied is devastating to him, and he’s convinced that he has nothing else to teach Vince at that point, especially if he can’t see a hustle himself. They were off to Atlantic City for a 9-ball tournament, but he just cuts the two loose, entering a training montage to get himself back up to snuff. None of this is particularly revelatory, but it’s solidly built, character-based action that drives a story forward. The big tournament is fine, but what makes the ending interesting is the evolution of the hustle and the re-emergence of the idea of being the best. At one time, Eddie was the best, and he wants to prove whether he is or not, so the tournament feels like the perfect place to prove it. However, Eddie has taught Vince about the hustle too well, and the question remains open. That the movie’s last shot is of Eddie breaking at the beginning of a new game against Vince with him saying that he’s back, shows a man who’s gotten beyond what held him back and is trying to regain his old place. It takes the conventions of the sports movie and twists them slightly.
In the end, this feels like Scorsese finding an excuse to work with Paul Newman and the exciting young actor Tom Cruise more than anything else. It’s a vehicle for Newman to professionally present himself as a character he had played with more energy two decades earlier and for Cruise to show the limits of his range by going from manic to somewhat in control. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is more interesting than Cruise as the intelligent and emotionally vulnerable Carmen.
Where this movie works best is the purely character-based action around Eddie. It’s not deep stuff, but it’s professional and well-executed. It’s not as interesting as Eddie’s journey in The Hustler, though. It also works when embracing the pool mechanics through allowing the actors to perform most of the shots and an energetic use of montage that provides and enthusiastic look at the specifics of the action.
This almost feels like Scorsese on autopilot, making an easy movie after two harder ones like Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. It’s lightly entertaining and well-made, not a whole lot more, and sometimes that’s enough for two hours of entertainment.