In The Color of Money, Paul Newman is back as “Fast” Eddie Felson, the role he originally played in The Hustler. He’s off the pool tables, but still keeping his eye on the game as he works. One fateful evening he notices up and coming ace Vince (Tom Cruise).
The problem with Vince is that he is a completely egotistical bum. Cruise is not bad in the role, even with his embarrassingly dated hair cut, but he is not very likeable (I suppose he’s to be commended for taking the role at the time when his career was just lifting off). Your sympathy is always with Felson and often you begin to wonder just what the hell he is doing wasting his time with a guy who puts him down, makes him feel like a has been and can’t get past his own ego in order to win in the big leagues. (Quite simply put – it all serves to set up the rebirth of Eddie Felson the pool player).
The first half of the film, however, is spent on Felson feeling tired, and trying unsuccessfully to teach a young kid a thing or two about control, hustling effectively and keeping his calm around the game. Vince, bizarrely, is too much of a loser to be a loser. Meaning, of course, that he refuses to lose games on purpose in order to con people into thinking they can take him – and therefore taking the big payday – instead of earning the chump change he has been earning.
The twists and turns of the relationship develop in a more interesting manner in the second half of the film after Felson leaves Vince and his headstrong, but equally conniving, girlfriend (Elisabeth Mary Mastrantonio).
Vince plays head games with Felson – especially after Felson apparently whips Vince in a pool competition. It only takes another scene longer for Felson to show Vince exactly what he’s made of mentally by chucking in the competition and slipping Vince’s pay off back to him.
Make no mistake – this film has nothing on The Hustler. The Hustler had pace and the relationships between most of the characters crackled with a broody menace. It was a world that afforded much less freedom than that available to the characters in The Color of Money. Scorsese’s film moves with the times and introduces many wild and egocentric characters who do half their work with simple vocal provocation (spot a younger John Turturro and Forest Whitaker as pool hustlers).
The Color of Money sits awkwardly in Scorsese’s canon. It looks and feels dated but has some good performances and a fairly interesting plot that is predictable by nature in its first half, and mildly interesting in its second. It probably lacks a bit of energy, although you get glimpses of some during the pool games. You know full well if Scorsese were to handle this material again it would now be done on a grander scale with more confidence (and hopefully a less irritating soundtrack), and not relying purely on Newman (who won an Oscar for this) to pull everyone through. But then I can’t say I’ve ever seen Newman phone anything in (not even in The Towering Inferno).