TMN Sports Movie Review: "Raging Bull"
on 2014-08-06 12:00
Length: 129 minutes
Release Date: December 19, 1980
Directed by: Martin Scorcese
Genre: Biography / Drama / Sport
Very few directors end up making a great film, let alone more than one. Even in his elite class of directors, Martin Scorsese still stands on his own. This legendary filmmaker has spent decades somehow releasing a varied series of one amazing film after another. While there are plenty of fantastic Scorsese-directed pictures, the 1980 drama "Raging Bull" is still one of the best. Because "Raging Bull" is one Scorsese's most beloved movies, this in turn means that the dramatic biography is one of the best movies of all time. However, all potential hyperbole aside, a close look at "Raging Bull" reveals what makes this picture so special.
"Raging Bull" is a movie about boxing, in a way. However, boxing enthusiasts may be disappointed if they are interested in a film that examines the strategy, training and ring successes of a great boxer. Despite the fact that the film is based on the memoir of Jake LaMotta, a real-life boxer who was also a World Middleweight Champion, this film never seems to venture into that territory. After all, those elements are not really what interested Scorsese, or even LaMotta when he was writing his story. "Raging Bull" is more of a loose adaptation, using the book for inspiration. On the other hand, boxing plays a huge part in this movie visually, emotionally and even metaphorically.
In "Taxi Driver," Scorsese presented a lurid vision of 1970s Manhattan in muted color. A few years later, Scorsese shot most of "Raging Bull" in stark, beautifully rendered black and white. One exception to this is during a montage which cuts black and white shots of Robert De Niro as LaMotta fighting various opponents in the mid-1940s with simulated, grainy color film footage of the boxer and his family. It is rumored that Scorsese's decision to film in black and white is that this type of film ages better and with less fading. Supposedly, the lack of color also covered up certain anachronistic props such as modern boxing gloves. Most importantly, the black and white also accentuates the dark emotional forces that envelop the main character.
Like in "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" deals largely with violence. There is a lot of sanctioned violence in LaMotta's life, but there is also the violent streak that he takes out on his family and others due to jealousy and insecurity. The story of the film is framed by a seemingly innocuous scene in which a retired LaMotta is getting ready to deliver a stand-up comedy routine. As the story cuts to a much younger LaMotta in 1941, the drama begins to unfold slowly yet magnificently.
It is not long before the audience sees young Jake fighting in the ring followed by the young boxer being violent with his first wife. Disturbingly, this abusiveness continues after he marries second wife Vicki, played by Cathy Moriarty. These episodes are spurned by paranoid jealousy. During the aforementioned montage sequence, the couple seems fairly happy on the surface, but Jake shows clear signs of possessiveness and fear. He also attacks his own brother Joey, portrayed by Joe Pesci in a breakthrough role, because of a vague suspicion.
The boxing scenes throughout are realistically brutal, especially during a pivotal fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. De Niro reportedly took the Method approach of actually training as a boxer, by some accounts becoming quite skilled. The sound and editing throughout is astonishing, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker won an Academy Award for her work in this great biography.
This film is unflinching both in and out of the ring, and the issues that plague Jake result in many of his worst fears coming true. De Niro also won an Oscar for "Raging Bull," and rightfully so. There are few other actors who could bring the same sheer pathos and degree of power that make the character work so brilliantly.
Even with movie-ready elements like organized crime connections, jail time and historic sporting events, the thing that carries "Raging Bull" so far into the minds of viewers is the disturbing, emotive heart of the story. As the story goes back towards LaMotta's post-boxing career as an entertainer, the weight of this classic really sinks in.
While cast and crew members like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Martin Scorsese all went on to do much more brilliant work, "Raging Bull" still stands as a cornerstone achievement in the careers of all involved. Even for Scorsese, this is an intense and unsettling movie. However, it is an undeniably important film as well.