VHS Revival slumps into the smoke-strewn pool halls of Scorsese’s uniquely conventional sequel
For the most part, The Color of Money doesn’t feel like a Scorsese film. That may sound like negative criticism, but I actually like this movie a great deal. Instead, what I mean is that this seems like an anomalous entry in the director’s rich and varied canon. His thumbprint is visible, but it doesn’t seem to carry his DNA. For one thing, it is a relatively conventional movie when the vast majority of his career has been anything but. These are characters that you invest in, that you remember fondly, but they don’t have the intensity or pzazz of those featured in his other marquee titles.
When I think Scorsese, I think gritty and anthropological (Taxi Driver), slick and dazzling (Goodfellas). I imagine a grotesquery of larger-than-life personas (Gangs of New York), or intense character studies dripping with style and authenticity (Raging Bull). At the lower end of the commercial scale, I even think quirky and bizarre (After Hours) or the deeply troubling and deliciously offbeat King of Comedy, movies that prove divisive among fans but which ultimately take risks and carry the aura of a commanding directorial presence.
For the majority of The Color of Money‘s running time Scorsese is happy to be a passenger. He has a stellar cast at his disposal, including an up-and-coming Tom Cruise, a whippersnapper who oozes star appeal as the petulant Vincent Lauria, treading a fine line between boyish charm and nauseating arrogance as he sets about learning from and ultimately outdoing his mentor. This is not Tommy DeVito bursting into spellbinding fits of rage or Daniel Day Lewis’s breathtakingly grandiose Bill the Butcher. It is low-key characters grappling with an understated premise. It is star power dulled of its sheen.
Eddie Felson – Do you smell that?
Vincent Lauria – What, smoke?
Carmen – No, Money…
The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, who also wrote the source material for the movie’s antecedent, 1961’s The Hustler, which Paul Newman also headlined as protagonist ‘Fast’ Eddie Felsen, and it was the actor who approached Scorsese about making the movie, feeling that the story had a similar tone to 1980‘s Raging Bull. If that was indeed the intention, then the two of them didn’t manage to pull it off, or even come close. Newman may have won a Best Actor Oscar for his starring role, and ‘Fast’ Eddie may be an iconic character, but he has neither the depth nor conflict of the real-life Jake LaMotta, and the likes of Cruise had absolutely no place appearing in a movie with such tonal aspirations back in 1986.
That’s not to say the movie isn’t authentic in its own right, and there are comparisons to be made between LaMotta and Newman’s effortlessly cool, ageing pool shark Felsen. Both are former champions and both attempt to stay relevant beyond their glory days, the former as a bloated night spot raconteur, the latter as a booze-addled coach drifting towards the wrong side of sharpness. Newman is a colossal presence as the older, wiser and just a little bitter pool hall ghost. His diamond glare and ruggedly suave aura command every frame, and you can sense that his heart and soul are poured into the role. He cares about what happens to one of his most iconic characters, and his personality saturates every last scene. Whether he’s stewing in whiskey, exploding into flashes of manipulative rage or simply hanging back as his precocious student pings off the walls with puerile bravado, his aura permeates this movie. The man in the shadows is forever front and centre.
Perhaps this is the reason why The Color of Money feels like someone else’s movie. To begin with, I assumed that Cruise was the main obstacle. Scorsese has often relied on blue-eyed charm when it comes to movies with delinquent themes, but actors such as Ray Liotta and Leonardo DiCaprio were able to pull off the roguish element, while Tom will always be Tom. Of course, assumptions are rarely worth a dime, and I later discovered that Newman almost drove novelist and co-screenwriter Richard Price crazy with his script demands, such was the preciousness of the character’s legacy in his mind and what he described as ‘missed opportunities’. So tired of the actor’s hegemonic approach was Price that he famously replied ‘If I hear ”we’re missing an opportunity” one more time, you’re going to be missing a writer.'”
Caught between the movie’s two male stars is Vincent’s hard-faced love interest, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who had burst onto the scene three years prior as Tony Montana‘s naive and ill-fated sister, Gina. The silver screen rookie had more than held her own starring alongside Al Pacino in one of his most memorable roles, and again she refuses to be overshadowed as the flirtatious and cunning Carmen, a loose beauty who seems at once loyal and ready to jump on the next runaway train that happens to rattle through her vicinity. Whenever I see Mastrantonio I am awestruck. It amazes me that she doesn’t get more plaudits as an actress because for me she is one of the finest of her generation.
Carmen – You win one more game, you’re gonna be humping your fist for a long time. Got that, Vincent?
When we catch up with ‘Fast’ Eddie he has long-since cooled the motor. He peddles whiskey — mainly, you suspect, so he has a constant supply at hand. One typically boozy evening he spies the relentlessly brash Vincent, who loves nothing more than showing off his prodigious pool skills in a manner that sees any bankable pigeon flutter away in a matter of minutes. Eddie sees a bit of himself in Vincent, and immediately the haze of booze clears and those hawkish instincts begin to sharpen. He knows he can make a winner out of the kid, although you have to think there’s more to the hustler’s 60-40 offer than meets the eye.
Vincent is suckered in by his mentor’s prophecies, seeing the old shark as something of a father figure as he attempts to keep his protege’s ego at bay in favour of the long con. The old man seems to be playing a calculated game as he continually gives the kid enough rope to hang himself before tugging at his leash, pulling him away from temptation with one hand and pushing him towards failure with the other. Inevitably, this proves to be a game of give-and-take that leads to an abrupt separation, and a final showdown at a pool tournament for the region’s finest. In the end, Eddie creates something of a monster, turning a naive pawn into a ruthless punk devoid of ethics, the kind who will inevitably flourish in an environment where everybody is looking for the next sucker to leech off.
Eddie Felson – You gotta have two things to win. You gotta have brains and you gotta have balls. Now, you got too much of one and not enough of the other.
The movie also features some rather notable cameos from future stars, such as John Turturro and Forest Whitaker, the former a cocaine-friendly table crawler quickly duped by the fresh-faced Vincent, the latter a gentle giant whose astonishingly au naturale performance seems to get the better of Eddie’s blunted instincts. Or does it? Whether ‘Fast’ is playing along in this instance is not fully evident, but it isn’t long before we discover that the old shark is not quite as impermeable as his savvy exterior suggests, resulting in the kind of private battle that reunites our warring rebels on the most fundamental level.
Can The Color of Money be deemed classic Scorsese? In terms of possessing his inimitable hallmarks, no, but the movie oozes cult appeal, while Newman’s old-dog-rediscovering-old-tricks act is hard not to get behind as we slump into the soothing dank of pool hall skulduggery. In the end, it falls short of Scorsese’s finest, but that shouldn’t be the extent of our relationship with the movie. The director takes his foot off the technical peddle and allows others to take charge of characters that are not his own, characters that others convinced him to get involved with. As a consequence, a relatively conventional endeavour ends up going against the grain.
Perhaps for this reason, The Color of Money is not the kind of spectacle we have come to expect from an innovative player such as Marty, but for once the show is not about him. It is instead about one of cinema’s most iconic characters, and the equally iconic star who portrays him. For both, the movie proves a fitting bow.