“You remind me that money won is twice as sweet as money earned.”
The Color of Money (Disney) is not and will never be considered Martin Scorsese’s greatest film. It hasn’t the ragged beauty and personal charge of Mean Streets, the ambition or the intensity of Taxi Driver, or the cinematic density of GoodFellas. Yet it is possibly his most accessible film and his answer to the old Hollywood studio movie. Like the studio contract directors of past decades, he neither developed nor pursued this project, and he still turns into a distinctly Scorsese vision.
It is not simply that Scorsese acquitted himself on the assignment, it is that he used the tools and talent of the production — a richly textured script by Richard Price, a mid-level studio budget bigger than anything he’d had for some time, the gravitas of Paul Newman, and the charge of young Tom Cruise in all his youthful arrogance and big-kid innocence — to make a film about regret and redemption. And he delivers the cinematic charge of the pool room culture of hustle and gamesmanship along with the education of a young protégé lacking self-restraint and a mentor who has yet to face his own conflicted feelings about the game.
Twenty-five years after walking away from the game in The Hustler, Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson has settled into success as a liquor salesman, a cross between a modern whisky drummer and a suave, slick bootlegger who sells his customers inexpensive alternatives to top-shelf brands (and the counterfeit labels to pass them off). Then he sees Vincent (Cruise), a grinning hotshot who wields a cue like a quarterstaff in a “Robin Hood” movie and outplays the neighborhood poolroom hustler (John Turturro) without breaking a sweat.
Cruise is in peacock mode as Vincent, all cocksure kid strutting his victories and feeding off the attention of the crowd, while Newman rules the room and the film as Eddie, once the student, now the mentor. He decides to stake the kid and teach him the rules of the game. Every gesture shows not just his understanding of human nature but his delight in playing the game, which for Eddie is less about playing the table than playing the odds and playing the player. But just as his lessons sink in with his undisciplined disciple, Eddie faces his own crisis in self-esteem and identity, thanks to a hard lesson from a small-time hustler (Forest Whitaker in a brilliant arrival).