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The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money

(SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money, however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

There’d be much more egregious for-hire examples later (Cape Fear, Shutter Island, even the one that got him the Oscar, finally), but this is where Scorsese willingly prostituted himself, telling himself that, if he didn’t, and didn’t turn up a hit, his career would be in serious trouble. Perhaps DOA. Even those supporting The Color of Money at the time – and critics were generally kind – recognised it for what it was. And what it was, was a hit. For Newman. For Cruise. For Marty. Not even close to the same year’s Top Gun (which made more than three times as much domestic), but it emphasised both Cruise and Newman – who was still a draw in the right material: Fort Apache, The Bronx; Absence of Malice; The Verdict – were Hollywood, not just pool, players.

It also received Oscar recognition, of course. Second tier, true – it would have to be a rare great sequel to be in contention for the top prize – but four nods, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Best Supporting Actress, yielded Newman’s first genuine win. He’d taken a lifetime achievement statuette the year before, but I’d suggest, for anyone with any self-respect about their trade, there’s something a little insulting about those. For a story that at no point feels like it needs to be told, the awards recognition makes for a pretty good showing. I suspect part of that is in the DNA of the plot Scorsese and Price eventually hit upon. If Walter Trevis’ 1984 sequel novel was the genesis of the movie, the filmmaker quickly ditched it as unworthy of the character and a motion picture.

Scorsese, as recounted by Bart Mills in the Film Year Book Volume 6, commented “I presented the idea that Fast Eddie would have become everything he’d hated – and then have to face himself. He’d face himself through the education of a kid”. This, as opposed to Trevis’ take of “a beaten man who had spent the intervening years racking balls in a pool hall”. If that reckoning was Scorsese’s intent, it’s fortunately somewhat subsumed. Firstly, in Newman underplaying such an intent (he had, after all, played the redemption card all-out in The Verdict, just a few years prior). Mainly, though, in the way Eddie taking up the tables again translates less as a realisation of sins committed and misdeeds atoned for than his recognising the competitive spirit welling up within once more, the passion to play again. You can interpret that as you will, but it doesn’t play preachy to me.

Possibly partly because, with Tom Cruise’s Vincent Lauria as the spark igniting Eddie’s fire, it’s pretty impossible to feel anything but repugnance. You don’t feel Eddie’s wrong teaching him tricks, how to lose to win big, because he’s such a cocky “little prick” (as Eddie’s girlfriend Janelle, played by Helen Shaver, succinctly characterises him). The only respectable method of responding to Vincent’s masturbatory dancing around the pool table would be to glass him. It’s further evidence of the baffling spell Cruise cast over audiences during that decade, when he actively appeared to be doing everything he possibly could to make them loathe his characters. See also the cocky little pricks in Top Gun and Cocktail.

There’s a problem too in Cruise’s presence, or rather the protégée presence, in that it actively works against the picture tracking like an organic sequel. It feels manufactured, the sort of thing that leads to a Top Gun: Maverick. If Vincent is supposed to be an infantile brat, I guess Cruise is doing good work here, but it’s no stretch from his other roles during the period. There’s also the damaging realisation that Mastrantonio is so out of Vincent’s league as girlfriend Carmen, and a crucial few years his senior, she could almost be a beard or handler (see also Tom’s real life pairing with Mimi Rogers a couple of years later).

I suspect there was a story to tell without ingratiating junior being shown the ropes, then, or at least, not in such an irksome manner. With him, the movie has been made to order (the other tell-tale sign of such thinking is Eddie’s Rocky training montage, where he limbers up to enter the Atlantic City tournament via an eye test, swimming lengths of the pool, and playing minor stakes games).

Mills considered the picture, “an honourable view of the heel’s comeback”, labelling it one of the films of 1986. Pauline Kael, inevitably, was less plussed. She thought it started well, but was crippled by Eddie’s “crisis of conscience, or something”: “Eddie locks his jaw, sets forth to become a man of integrity, and the joy goes out of Newman’s performance…”. She was convinced Scorsese and Price were turning the character into “a tortured, driven artist, suffering whatever temptations Scorsese is suffering, or… imagines he’s suffering”. Like I say, I didn’t feel that was writ distractingly large, but more to the point, any return to Eddie needed the satisfaction of him doing what he does best again. Why else would you go there, unless you wanted to wallow in emotional squalor? Paul Schrader would have delivered the goods there, I’m certain.

She also accused Scorsese’s approach of being one who “shows off the dynamics of moviemaking, overdramatising everything”. And this is true, but that’s because he doesn’t essentially feel any of the things Kael is projecting onto him, and unlike After Hours, where Coens-esque excess serves the heightened story and tone, this is an exercise in gun-for-hire impersonality.

I’m all in for her description of Cruise, though: “He’s so wholesome and harmless he’s like a cheerleader’s idea of a De Niro flake”. She goes wild for Forest Whitaker (who is very good) yet neglects to mention John Turturro, who is equally so. Whitaker’s the guy who beats Eddie at his own game (“Are you a hustler, Amos?”) Turturro is the spurned junior hustler who thinks he’s better than he is, and even gets a line that might have inspired the Coens’ de Jesus (“I’ll put the nine-ball up both your asses”).

The Color of Money did decent business for Touchstone during its first big breakout year (their other hits were Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People). More especially, it earned awards attention, something that had virtually been a foreign country to Disney outside of animation. A great sequel? No. But a perfectly respectable attempt at the quarter-century-later revisit, and it would arguably pave the way for other attempts claiming similarly legitimate intent.

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