'80s Movie Month: "Raging Bull" Review

Photo Credit: United Artists

'80s Movie Month: "Raging Bull" Review

Rating: R (violence, profanity)
Length: 129 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 19, 1980
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Genre: Biography/Drama/Sport

Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) is a man who has a lot of rage in him. He uses it to good effect in the ring when he boxes, obliterating opponents by channeling his anger. The problem is that he can't seem to leave the rage in the ring, so when the fight is over, he has to find other places to take it out. His family, particularly wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), becomes the target in "Raging Bull," a film based on the story of real-life boxer La Motta, who penned the book that was adapted for the film.

The film begins in 1941, when La Motta was trying to make his way up the middleweight ranks and meets Vickie, who was just fifteen years old at the time. He is taken by her beauty and divorces his wife to marry her, but his deep-seeded insecurities threaten the union almost immediately. He can't believe such a gorgeous woman could be faithful to him, so he accuses her of cheating on a number of occasions. One time he even suspects that she is stepping out on him with his own brother, Joey (Joe Pesci). He beats Joey in an explosive fit of rage, ensuring that everyone he loves is scared of him.

La Motta would go on to win a title, but being a champion still didn't assuage his insecurities. If anything, success made them grow to the point where Vickie, battered repeatedly despite a lack of any evidence of infidelity, finally leaves the raging bull she married, taking their kids with him. La Motta loses his title, wife, kids, and brother, yet he doesn't seem to reflect on this the way a sane person would. Instead, he continues to let his rage rule him, carving out a life that is equal parts pathetic and sad in his twilight years, all of which are presented in an unflinching and memorable manner.

De Niro had already been acting on the screen for a full fifteen years before "Raging Bull" came out in 1980. He had even won an Oscar already, for his performance in "The Godfather: Part II" in 1974 and made other great movies like "The Deer Hunter" and "Taxi Driver." Still, "Raging Bull" is arguably his best role out of all of those—and not just because he won his second Oscar for the role. It was because of his complete and total transformation into the part. De Niro wasn't just an actor playing a part, he embodied La Motta in a way few actors have ever been able to do. His dedication to the part is the stuff of legend, including working for months to achieve La Motta's top boxing physique, then eating copious amounts of French and Italian food in order to play him in his later years as a pudgy has-been. He even went so far as to train as a boxer and enter real boxing matches, even managing to walk away with a few victories.

Incredibly, the only other Oscar that the film won besides De Niro's was for editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who deserved the award every bit as much as De Niro deserved his. This is mostly due to the fight scenes, which were estimated to take two weeks to film but ended up taking ten weeks instead. Director Martin Scorsese knew that the fight scenes needed to be brutal to be realistic, and he wouldn't settle for simply glazing over the beatings in order to sterilize them. He captured every recoil and every bit of flying blood and sweat; then, he handed the footage over to Schoonmaker, who turned them into one of the best parts of the film. There is a certain beauty in the brutality, as she expertly mixed sound and visuals to make each fight as stunning as the next.

"Raging Bull" was declared the best film on the 1980s by some critics when it came out, which was shocking considering that it was released in December 1980. Even though there were still nine years left in the decade, some looked at the film and realized nothing better could possibly be made in the ensuing nine years. Arguments could be made for other films, but "Raging Bull" is not only one of the best films of the 80s but one of the best of all time. It is influential in a number of ways and has even helped make black-and-white films cool again. Time has shown that it should have won more Oscars than it did, but the way it influenced a generation of filmmakers and actors is all the accolades this legendary film really needs.

Rating: 4 out of 5