From the DVD Shelf: The Color of Money (1986)
After watching The Hustler (click here for my review of that 1961 film), I immediately had to watch Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money. This has to be one of the weirdest sequels ever made. Released twenty-five years after the original film, made by a different director, shot in color as opposed to the original’s black-and-white, The Color of Money is a completely different film than The Hustler. And yet, I was impressed by how connected the two films were, mostly because of the story — which, though set years later, seems to draw a direct line from the end of The Hustler — and, of course, Paul Newman’s reprisal of his classic role as “Fast” Eddie Felson.
Like The Hustler, The Color of Money was adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis. Following the events of The Hustler, Eddie stopped being a pool shark. He seems to have made a fine (though not especially successful) life for himself, but when he sees an incredibly talented young pool player, Vincent (played by Tom Cruise), Eddie begins to hunger once again for the action. He convinces Vincent to let Eddie take him on the road, so he can teach Vincent the pool shark game and hopefully make the both of them a lot of money.
As in The Hustler, the film succeeds primarily because Paul Newman is so fantastic in the role of “Fast” Eddie. Mr. Newman may be an older man, but he’s still incredibly compelling and charismatic. You can see in the way he talks, and the way he moves, the powerful young man that “Fast” Eddie once was. As the film progresses, the narrative keeps the audience in genuine doubt as to whether Eddie still has what it takes to beat the odds and get the score, or whether he’s just a washed up old man with memories of glory. Mr. Newman’s powerful yet subtle performance allows the audience to envision both possibilities.
The beating heart of The Color of Money, of course, and the film’s whole reason for being, is the pairing of elder statesman Paul Newman with the young Tom Cruise as Vincent. Mr. Cruise is electric in the role. Vincent is brash and loud, full of energy and enthusiasm and lust for life, but totally without patience and not exactly possessing of a plethora of brains. The twenty-four year-old Cruise commands the viewer’s attention, and when he and Paul Newman share the screen (as they do for much of the film’s run-time), their chemistry is palpable and exciting. It’s a terrific dynamic, and certainly one that helps you understand why the filmmakers felt like a return to “Fast” Eddie and the world of The Hustler was worth making after so many years had passed.
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Vincent’s girlfriend/manager, Carmen. Ms. Mastrantonio is solid in the role as the manipulative Carmen, and it’s fun to see the entirely different manner that Carmen uses when dealing with Eddie as opposed to Vincent, though I must say I was surprised her performance was nominated. There were times in the film when I found her to be a little unconvincing, actually. It’s fun to see John Turturro in the film, though his role is tiny.
The Color of Money is competently directed by Martin Scorsese. The character drama is strong, and he does a great job at bringing energy and tension to the pool games in the latter half of the film. In many ways, the film doesn’t really feel like a Martin Scorsese movie. The film doesn’t have many of the stylistic flourishes I often expect from Mr. Scorsese, not does it feature the actors who have been regular in his films. It’s almost as if Mr. Scorsese made a conscious attempt not to direct “a Martin Scorsese picture” but rather a film that could fit as a sequel to The Hustler. Who knows, maybe I am reading way more into this than I should. What I want to say is that I don’t miss any of those stylistic flourishes. The Color of Money is well-directed, well-performed, and well-put-together, and I credit Mr. Scorsese for all of that.
Weeks later, I still find myself thinking about the ending of the film. (If you want to remain spoiler-free you should stop here.)
After Eddie’s climactic pool game versus Vincent, and the revelations that follow, we might suspect that Eddie has finally been broken. But as he has so many times before, the character rebounds, and the film ends with Eddie’s exultation that “I’m back!” But I found myself wondering: is this a happy ending, or a tragic one? Should we be happy that Eddie seems to have finally found his long-lost mojo? Or should we be sad that he seems to have traded a future with a woman who loves him for life back on the road and the continuing pursuit of the almighty dollar? It’s intriguing to me that, the way Mr. Scorsese has structured the film and presented the ending, it is entirely up to the audience to make that decision. The film does not direct us towards one conclusion over the other, which is very rare. At first, I was thrown for a loop. (“Wait a minute, that’s the ending??” I thought!) But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I admire the filmmakers for crafting such an ambiguous ending. It’s quite delicious, and makes one want to watch the film all over again.
(It also makes me long for a follow-up. The Color of Money feels to me like the middle film in a story that begs to be a trilogy. What would happen to Fast Eddie after his rebirth in this film? Sadly, such a final film was never made. I don’t even know if it was even ever considered. I’m just dreaming here…)
I know The Color of Money isn’t considered one of Martin Scorsese’s greater works, but I loved it and am glad to have finally seen it. One certainly doesn’t have to have seen The Hustler to enjoy it — the story totally stands on its own — but it also works very successfully as a follow-up to that classic film. It’s a winner.