Empty Balcony: The Color of Money

Still burning off those reviews for the aborted Cruise month. Here’s criticism of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time:

Good things come to those who wait. Many times in the film and television business these days, it seems as if a film sequel or further seasons of a television series are greenlit as soon as a project has a whiff of success. Reasonably enough, the people in charge of feeding us content see success as evidence that we viewers would like more of the same. But sometimes it takes a long time for a success to have a follow-up. Such was the case with The Hustler, the 1961 film directed by Robert Rossen, from the novel by Walter Tevis. A full 25 years went by before Tevis penned a sequel. When he finally did, the film adaptation, The Color of Money, bore little resemblance in plot, but it was helmed by Martin Scorcese. That’s a pretty good tradeoff.

Tom Cruise had worked with the Scott brothers before this, but The Color of Money was his first project with a true giant in the art of filmmaking. By the time Scorcese directed this film, he had already established himself as a director able to capture the seediness of life in the big city. Both The Hustler and The Color of Money reside in that space, making Scorcese the perfect pick to direct this sequel. But, it has to be said, the Scorcese of the mid-1980s was a filmmaker in transition.

There was an entire decade between Raging Bull and Goodfellas. During this time, Scorcese seemed to make a concerted effort to leave behind the growing oppressiveness of his films in a desire to embrace a more freewheeling type of narrative. In The Color of Money, viewers can see Scorcese testing the waters, experimenting The Color of Money poster artwith soundtrack, quick cuts, camera movements, and other techniques that would come to dominate Goodfellas. For that alone, The Color of Money is worth a watch.

But, this isn’t Martin Scorcese month here at Missile Test. It’s Tom Cruise month. Maybe someday I’ll get back to a deeper analysis of Scorcese’s career, but for now, it’s back to Mr. Mapother.

In this film, Cruise plays Vincent Lauria, a young flake with a shallow personality, little ability to think beyond the moment, and phenomenal skill at playing billiards. He crosses paths with Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), a one-time pool hall hustler who had a run-in with some bad people two decades earlier (as detailed in The Hustler). Fast Eddie has spent his entire adulthood looking to relieve suckers of their money, and while he had to give up playing pool, apparently there’s nothing in the hustler handbook that says he can’t stakehorse another player.

When Eddie looks at Vincent, he sees the greatest asset a hustler can have — anonymity. No one knows this kid. Eddie can take Vincent into any pool hall in the country and Vincent is just a stupid young kid in over his head. Guys will be lining up to play him, and Eddie can take all their money. Eddie can see this, and so can Vincent’s girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). But Vincent just can’t get how hustling works through his thick skull. In every place they enter, Vincent ruins any chance they have of making big money by giving his opponents his best game.

Eddie is obsessed with money, and the more of it Vincent throws away, the greater his disgust becomes, until a moment of vulnerability leaves Eddie shattered. The final act of the film takes place at a 9-ball tournament in Atlantic City, and as in The Hustler, Eddie must rebuild his shattered vision of himself.

Paul Newman was every bit as good as one would expect in this film. In fact, this was the movie for which Newman won his only Oscar for acting. But Cruise played the perfect foil for Fast Eddie. His Vincent is an unlikable shithead. He’s a young hotshot who thinks he’s still immortal. As far as he’s concerned there’s still a million sunrises yet to see. There’s no reason to hide his skills when he’s so proud of them, and his pride leads to a stubbornness that would make an overburdened mule jealous. Vincent is so unlikable that he almost makes Cruise unlikable. But that’s just an indication of how well Cruise worked with the material. The more a viewer wants to punch Vincent in the face, the more they are being drawn into Cruise’s performance. Whereas Top Gun was the movie that made Cruise a superstar, The Color of Money showed how fine of an actor he really is.

The Color of Money is probably not the film that comes to mind when thinking of Scorcese, Newman, or Cruise, yet it delivers on the promise of those three talents.

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