The Color of Money is an outlier in the career of Martin Scorsese. While few think it’s an outright bad movie (although Siskel & Ebert gave it two thumbs down when it came out), there’s clearly a sense out there that it isn’t a “real” Scorsese movie—or, if it is, that it’s lower-tier Scorsese.
Much of this perspective likely stems from the fact that The Color of Money is a sequel to a film that Scorsese didn’t make:1961’s stone-cold classic, The Hustler. What was Scorsese doing making a sequel to someone else’s masterpiece—and a quarter of a century later, no less?
The answer to that question is, at least in part, that Scorsese, after the financial failures of The King of Comedy and After Hours, needed a hit. While both of those films would one day be regarded as at least minor classics, neither found an audience at the time. If Scorsese was feeling a need to stay viable, this was an understandable move.
Aside from that, The Color of Money does suffer some from what you might call comparison disease. In much the same way that so many think The Godfather Part III is not a good movie because it doesn’t rise to the level of what came before it. Robert Rossen’s The Hustler is an absolute masterpiece dealing not just with the game of pool, but the art of the grift. On any list of the three greatest movies Paul Newman ever made, The Hustler will be there.
Still, I think judging The Color of Money solely on how it compares to its predecessor is an unfair way to view the film. If we simply take The Color of Money on its own merits, and ask the most basic question—is it a good movie?—then I think the answer is an easy one.
Before The Color of Money loses its mojo (if only by a bit) about ⅘ of the way through, it is fabulous entertainment. The script by the famously hard boiled novelist, Richard Price, is full of crackling dialogue that any actor would have trampled on small children to get the opportunity to speak.
When we meet Fast Eddie Felson some two and a half decades after his thumbs are broken in The Hustler, we find him as a successful liquor salesman who keeps his toe in the juice by staking the occasional pool player. We meet Tom Cruise’s Vincent Lauria as he’s taking Felson’s stake (a terrific John Turturro) to task. Eddie knows as soon as he hears Vincent’s “sledgehammer break” that he is in the presence of a special talent.
Eddie takes an interest in Vincent as a player and “an incredible flake” and takes him and his tough as a cement mixer girlfriend/manager Carmen (a pitch-perfect Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) on the road.
Once they join forces, the crux of the movie becomes about Eddie and Carmen’s efforts to civilize Vincent’s sub-Toys ‘r’ Us retail floor salesman into a true pool hustler.
Every second of that effort is cinematic gold. Cruise was just coming off the massive success of Top Gun, but one suspects he had a desire to be taken seriously. Going toe to toe with Paul Newman certainly afforded him the opportunity, and boy, did he make the most of it. Cruise is absolutely on fire in the film. Vincent is smarter than he looks (but not as smart as he needs to be) and so talented that he can get high on his own supply and (mostly) get away with it. Both Newman and Cruise made all their own shots that you see onscreen, which is amazing enough, until you realize that Cruise can shoot pool ambidextrously.
Perhaps the most famous scene in the film is the “Werewolves of London” sequence where Cruise goes off on his own with his precious pool stick (the Balabushka, which, for the purposes of this film, is the equivalent of Excalibur) gifted to him by Eddie, and clears out an entire billiards hall wielding the accoutrement like a samurai sword. It’s an absolute gas to watch Cruise swipe his hand past his just short of a Little Richard pompadour just as the voice of Warren Zevon rings out “and his hair was perfect” from the hall jukebox.
Oh yes, Tom Cruise could not only hang with the big boys, he could take over a film. And he needed to be at that level, because while many see Paul Newman’s Best Actor Oscar for The Color of Money as a sort of “gold watch” award (akin to Pacino’s win for Scent of a Woman), he’s is tip-top form here (it’s astounding how much younger he looks here than he did four years earlier in The Verdict). Newman has always been much better at playing morally questionable types than he’s been given credit for, and he certainly is working in that shades of grey vein here. Eddie likes Vincent, but mostly, he sees an opportunity.
You can hear that need to take advantage of his charge in full effect when Felson chastises Vincent for going easy on a disabled old man that Vincent laments “has a hole in his throat!” Newman teaches the kid a lesson by allowing him to lose and then walking out with the money, which leads to Vincent getting assaulted.
“That’s the problem with mercy,” Felson explains. “It just ain’t professional.” It’s a lesson that Vincent will take to heart more than Eddie might like.
Being on the road for the first time in ages, Eddie begins to succumb to the “itch.” As much as Eddie wants to believe he can just be Vincent’s teacher and the money behind the game, the reality is that Eddie wants to play.
One night, Eddie borrows Vincent’s Balabushka and takes it to a local hall where he encounters Moses (a wonderfully eccentric cameo by Forest Whitaker). At first, Eddie cleans Moses’ clock. Yet somehow, the young man stays cheerful…because he’s laying a trap. Moses ends up hustling Eddie in embarrassing fashion while Vincent and Carmen look on. Eddie’s demons resurface and in a fit of childish pique, he puts a couple thousand dollars into Carmen’s hands and leaves them to the wilderness.
The movie loses a bit of zip after the trio breaks apart. It’s not bad by any means, but the film’s electric interplay between Newman, Cruise, and Mastrantonio is sorely missed over the last 20 plus minutes.
Shamed but not chastened, Eddie works on his game and enters a pool tournament where he and Vincent end up meeting in the semifinals. Even when the film attempts to turn the “big game” cliché on its head with a sort of double cross, it falls a little flat. This despite Scorsese presenting the tournament hall as a cathedral (complete with a church organ soundtrack) of sorts through gorgeous framing and camerawork.
Early on in the film, Eddie explains that while selling liquor may have supplied him with a secure life, “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned.” The trouble is that those winnings come at a cost, too. Eddie may believe that he’s “back” at the end of the film, but despite the film’s efforts to end on a somewhat positive note, I suspect that Eddie is headed for more losses down the road. His tires are short on tread, and his belief that he can be who he once was is surely a faulty one.
I wish The Color of Money would have leaned a little more into that realistic direction. It’s surprising to think that Scorsese’s sequel is far less dark than Rossen’s original, but that truth shouldn’t stop anyone from recognizing what a good time 80% of The Color of Money is.
As the rollicking Eric Clapton song from the movie goes, “It’s in the way that you use it.” If you take The Color of Money on its own terms, what you will find is you can use it, and use it well.