Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Color of Money (1986)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Richard Price
Starring: Paul Newman, Tom Cruise

I think that it is virtually impossible for a great director to make an uninteresting film. They can make bad ones and even horrible ones, but they will always be entertaining. Take Oliver Stone for example. Alexander is the very definition of a horrible film, but it provides beautiful cinematography as well as the ability to make the viewer laugh hundreds of times per minute. What makes that film so interesting is the fact that it so incredibly horrible that it could only come from the mind of a mad genius. The Color of Money, on the other hand is brought to us by the greatest of all American filmmakers and it features wonderful performances by two of the most charismatic actors in modern cinema. With all it has going for it, the film is nowhere near perfect, but it is made with so much skill and bravado that it is in many ways more interesting than the majority of the films of its decade.

Based on Walter Tevis' novel, Scorsese's film is a belated sequel to Robert Rossen's The Hustler, but it does work as a standalone film. In fact, I first saw The Color of Money many, many years ago, well before I got around to watching Rossen's film, and as great as the first film is and as much as admire it, I have found myself repeatedly drawn to the sequel time and time again. Why? Because it's a hell of a lot of fun. Check out how easily Newman slips back into the persona of Eddie Felson, and marvel at the blast Cruise is having playing the upstart pool shark who "couldn't find big time with a road map." The interplay between the two is more than enough reason to recommend the film, but that would be ignoring Richard Price's dialogue, which is fast enough to knock your neck out of place. Then revel in the way that cinematographer Michael Ballhaus prowls various pool halls with his camera. He starts in slow then lunges across pool tables as if the camera were as light as a cue stick, and Scorsese does for billiards what he did for boxing. Robbie Robertson's score is effective without calling too much attention to itself, and with Scorsese's help, the two lay down a bevy of tunes (from Clapton, Phil Collins, Warren Zevon, etc.) that you would expect to find in dank and smokey mid-'80's hangouts. The technical achievements of the crew obviously cry out for better material, but you can't make Taxi Driver or Goodfellas each time you step behind a camera, every now and then you have to collect a paycheck.

Yes, there are many flaws. The biggest of which comes from the fact that Scorsese and Price evidently left the climactic scene on a hotel desk somewhere and never got around to finding it, so as a result, the ending is not even remotely satisfying. More importantly, though, while the film is exceptionally well made, as you would expect from this filmmaker, there is nothing personal about it. As with The Aviator, The Color of Money is not a true Scorsese film, nor does it feature anything resembling substance. But with so much talent playing to the rafters-including Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, John Turturro, and the brief yet priceless Forest Whitaker-there is nothing shameful about indulging yourself in this little stylistic exercise of a movie.

Note: This film provided the great Paul Newman with his only Oscar win. Yep. Only. And you thought Scorsese's Oscar was overdue.


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