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Criminally Overrated: The Color of Money

Criminally Overrated: The Color of Money

The problems are three-fold: Scorsese’s dead direction; Richard Price’s cumbersome screenplay; and Tom Cruise’s lack of an “off” switch.

Director Martin Scorsese was in a pit of despair in the late-’80s. After the critical and financial success of Raging Bull in 1980, Scorsese failed to recapture that glory with his follow-ups The King of Comedy and After Hours. Actor Paul Newman was interested in doing a sequel to his 1961 feature The Hustler, based on a book by Walter Tevis. Tevis wrote a sequel and with that in hand Newman went to Scorsese with an offer to direct.

Scorsese, looking to prove to the studios he could make a film by their rules (on-time and under budget) took on the project. In the years since, Scorsese has said that what became The Color of Money isn’t one of “his” films because he was a hired gun. And boy does that explain a lot. Outside of illustrating how boring Scorsese can be with a camera, The Color of Money is a bloated vanity project whose only merits are found in Paul Newman – who got an honorary apology Oscar for it – and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

Pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson (Newman) has hung up his cue after a successful career. But he decides to take a chance on a young protégé named Vincent (Tom Cruise). The pair, joined by Vincent’s girlfriend, Carmen (Mastrantonio), go on the road, hitting various joints with an eye towards a giant tournament in Atlantic City. But will Vincent’s loose-cannon personality end up destroying what looks to be a profitable relationship?

I didn’t watch The Hustler prior to watching its sequel, and I doubt the previous feature is necessary considering Eddie Felson is the only character who returns. Jackie Gleason was offered the chance to reprise his role as Minnesota Fats, but turned it down. Newman shows that, at 61, he was still cool. He’s just as confident as Vincent, but where Cruise relies on mugging and general insufferability, Newman exudes it naturally. His penchant for flirtation works best opposite Mastrantonio, particularly in a scene where they’re trying to psyche out a bunch of pool sharks (and end up driving Vincent crazy). If the film put its focus on Eddie training Carmen to spot the hustlers and how to pamper a future pool shark, I’d have been entertained.

The Color of Money’s problems are three-fold: Scorsese’s dead direction; Richard Price’s cumbersome screenplay; and Tom Cruise’s lack of an “off” switch. Scorsese shows a few cool camera moves towards the film’s conclusion as Vincent and Eddie’s competitive nature is depicted with a slew of balls gliding along the table in a way that’s bewitching. But that’s about it.

The Hustler was a film about pool, but the pool sequences didn’t make up the entirety of the film. With a runtime of nearly two-hours, 75% of The Color of Money is watching people bent over pool tables and doing trick shots. Scorsese doesn’t see the forest; he sees the cool flowers that can open their petals magically. We watch characters throw their cues around, hit balls in innovative ways…but is the story just 101 Ways to Get an 8-Ball in the Corner Pocket? Suffice it to say, repetition sets in. Add in Cruise’s love of swinging his cue around and I thought I was watching Cocktail in a pool hall.

Price’s script places pool as the arbiter of fortune’s wheel, where luck is required but doesn’t guarantee success. But Price’s treatment of luck itself never goes anywhere, instead becoming little more than beautiful pablum spoken by an unseen narrator (Scorsese himself) who never returns after the initial introductions. An hour passes before any sort of stakes arise. Eddie, despite being an expert at detecting a hustler, is himself hustled. Eventually he decides to take up the cue again, going head-to-head with Vincent. This works great if it didn’t happen in the final 25 minutes, leading to an ending that feels like a cop-out with characters reverting to sandbox logic: “I could have won if I’d wanted to!”

While Mastrantonio and Newman are reason enough to watch, Cruise presents an equally compelling reason not to. By 1986, Cruise wasn’t quite the King of Hollywood yet. And much of his performance as Vincent trades on the goodwill he’d established in Top Gun. His Vincent is cocky, brash and – dare I say – a maverick. His cock-sure attitude works in a military setting, but in the down-home grit of the pool hall he’s just a young punk playing video games; a 27-year-old man-child who treats his girlfriend like garbage and generally acts like he’s been living in his mother’s basement. Newman and Cruise’s team-up was a passing of the torch, from Old Hollywood to the new school, but Newman outclasses Cruise at every turn.

Ultimately The Color of Money is simply boring. Scorsese’s distancing from it is understandable because there’s no heart in it. There’s no interest or spirit found, short of Cruise’s penchant for ninja poses. Newman and Mastrantonio provide some entertainment, but you’ll be miffed they aren’t the focus, overlooked in favor of table felt and Cruise’s pompadour.

        1 Comment on this Post

        1. I agree that The Colour Of Money feels like very minor Scorsese….. however, for some reason, I repeat watch this more than any of Scorsese’s other 80s films. The direction isn’t off colour at all – I find it dynamic.

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