The Color of Money (1986)
Written by Richard Price
Directed by Martin Scorsese
The Color of Money is a very appropriately titled film because it feels like Martin Scorsese made it to progress other projects, mostly The Last Temptation of Christ. This was essentially a work-for-hire picture that helped keep Scorsese busy and honing his craft. He doesn’t really use any of the stable of actors you might expect, even in minor roles. John Turturro, who had a “blink and you’ll miss him” cameo in Raging Bull, has a small supporting role, but overall, this is a group of performers Scorsese was working with for the first time. Paul Newman and Tom Cruise are the co-male leads, with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as the female lead. It’s also a sequel to a film made twenty years earlier. All these elements make for a movie you probably wouldn’t guess Scorsese made unless you saw the opening credits.
“Fast” Eddie Felton (Newman) is a former pool hustler, now a liquor salesman in Chicago. He helps out a hustler named Julian (Turturro) in staking bets but is amused by a young hotshot named Vincent (Cruise). Vincent’s girlfriend Carmen (Mastrantonio) is attempting to hustle for her beau but shows her inexperience. Feeling a pang for his younger days, Eddie makes a deal to mentor Vincent and Carmen to help him prepare for a tournament in Atlantic City. The biggest hurdle is tempering Vincent’s ostentatious nature, which scares away the people you want to keep playing. Eddie finds his thirst to hustle returning, but the years have caught up to him, and he might not have the touch anymore.
If you have ever seen any mentor-student films before then, you can literally predict this movie’s plot points. Eddie & Vincent are pure stock characters that never make a single surprising move the entire picture. You’ll be entertained, but this is easily a play in the background type of movie. I suspect Scorsese saw he was making a mainstream studio picture and just didn’t try to push any boundaries or surprise viewers with a different narrative structure. In fact, this is like the Karate Kid of billiards movies. There’s an absence of tension, which surprising because that’s something Scorsese can do so well. Sports movies are supposed to create tension and the payoff of the final “game.” The director doesn’t do that at all here.
The best parts of The Color of Money happen early on as we see Eddie and Vincent clash a bit. There’s a small battle of egos, which I think Scorsese should have leaned into more. Instead, he lets that fizzle out and brings it back up in that last few minutes of the movie. We never really get a great handle on Vincent and Carmen’s relationship. She tells Eddie she dated a guy that robbed Vincent’s parents’ house, but there’s obviously something more complicated there. I can’t say I understood for a second why she stayed with him beyond Vincent looked good, and he helps her earn money hustling pool. I think Vincent & Carmen are the characters Scorsese should have invested more time in ultimately.
While he tackles aging magnificently in The Irishman, at this point in his career, that was a theme Scorsese just hadn’t developed in his work. You don’t need to see The Hustler to understand this film, but I suspect it would have helped because I just didn’t get Eddie’s character. He comes off as a selfish prick who wants to be the champ again and treats his girlfriend, Janelle (Helen Shaver), like crap for no good reason. Of course, she forgives him when it’s plot convenient and makes nice. But she is criminally underwritten and under-developed. I wanted more time between these two to understand their relationship’s nuances, just like with Carmen. The female characters basically end up tossed to the side and only used when absolutely needed.
Everything here is fine, you’ll probably enjoy the movie while watching it, but it certainly won’t be remembered for long after the end credits roll. It’s incredibly disappointing that Scorsese directed this slick, commercial film. I get the need to make money and do a studio picture, but it would have been fantastic if he had found some ways to make it more of his own. His next film is all his and um… it’s a rough one. The Last Temptation of Christ is up next.