I'll just admit right from the start that I am pretty much incapable of being too harsh on Martin Scorsese or the films he makes. No matter what, there's always something going on that merits them being given at least a mild recommendation.
That said, what this film is is probably Scorsese at his most commercial and mainstream. Is it a sell out picture? Not quite, but it sort of does stick out, probably as the least of all his work, mostly because of the fact that it is a long overdue follow up to an all time classic, and it severely pales in comparison to its predecessor.
Here's the thing though, I don't think that Scorsese even tried or was interested in trying to make this equal The Hustler. He just wanted to do it for fun, and because, even in 1986, he had easily earned the right to make whatever he wanted.
As a sequel, it's not great, but, as far as sequels go, it's probably the best in terms of working decently as a stand alone film (if you wish to see it as such). Take away the film's connection to The Hustler and it would be a decent, but less remarkable work, but because it does have the connection, it does work because Eddie Felson is a character who made such an impact that any attempt to see where the character ended up is welcome.
The film opens with Eddie Felson long retired from pool, working as a liquor salesman. He's not interested in returning to pool, but changes his mind when he comes across a brash, young, cool and cocky hustler named Vincent and his manipulative girlfriend/manager Carmen. Eddie decides to make Vincent truly reach his potential, and, while some of the story beats are familiar, how the film reaches it's conclusion isn't totally unoriginal.
The film does employ some of Scorsese's trademark touch (mostly with style, cinematography, and focus on character), albeit in a rather subdued and restrained manner. It's not without energy, but you'd really never know that Marty directed it had his name not been on the credits. This is the first time that a Scorsese soundtrack actually got on my nerves, and the film is a bit torturous in that it's anticlimactic and a perpetual tease, but then again, that keeps things somewhat fresh and unpredictable.
The acting is where the film earns most of its recommendation. Newman returns to one of his best characters and for his efforts finally won his first and only non honorary Oscar. He didn't necessarily deserve it for this role, so the win was more of a consolation/career sort of thing, but the performance is pretty solid nonetheless. Cruise is in typical Crusie mode as Vincent, so even though he's unremarkable, it's still a passable and adequate performance. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is quite good as Carmen thoguh, and her character is one of the more interesting ones. John Turturro briefly shows up, and it would have been great had he been used more, but he does good with what he's given. Forest Whitaker also shows up for an extended cameo, and it's actually probably the strongest scene of the film.
This film just feels like the damndest thing for me because it's Scorsese going more commercial yet still not playing by the rules. He isn't getting lazy, but he's not doing anything truly special either. Still though, a lot of things are done better as a result of his involvement, even if this still results in being one of his lesser works, if not the least (given the ones I've seen, that is). I think the best way to describe this film, and one of the biggest reasosns to see it, given how I've rambled on, is to do it in one word: fascinating.