Raging Bull (1980)
Release Date: December 19th, 1980 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Martin Scorsese Actors: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent, Theresa Saldana, Lori Anne Flax
eautiful, calm orchestral music perfectly balances the aggressive, brutal nature of boxing and the self-destructive rage that dismantles both Jake La Motta’s opponents and his familial relationships. With La Motta serving as a consultant (and from a screenplay based on his autobiography), Martin Scorsese directs an award-winning film that exposes the volatile personality of a skilled fighter and how his inner fireworks disrupt his ability to be a champion anywhere but inside the ring. Critically acclaimed and winner of the Best Actor Academy Award for Robert De Niro’s legendary, physically transforming performance, “Raging Bull” is frequently considered one of the most important films of all time. Unfortunately, with a complex, disagreeable character and a lack of redemption or revelations, it’s also a difficult picture to watch.
It’s 1964, New York, and Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), is overweight and washed up, having retired from a career in middleweight boxing. He now revels in giving little speeches at a nightclub, to introduce guest singers and crack jokes like a comedian. The film steps back in time to 1941, where Jake loses his first match, despite three consecutive knockdowns of his opponent. It’s a questionable decision, but it doesn’t compare to the significant problems with his temper.
At home, he’s abusive to his wife and cruel and needling to his brother/manager Joey (Joe Pesci). Jake always has something to prove, even if he’s unsure of what it is. In doing so, he demonstrates that he’s stubborn, loud, violent, disrespectful, and unfriendly. To cause further trouble, he has his sights set on 15-year old Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a respectable girl who spends her days reclining by the pool. By 1943, Jake and Vickie are steady lovers, and Sugar Ray Robinson is suffering a second beating at the hands of La Motta – but the “Bronx Bull” still loses the overall fight when the judges rule in favor of Robinson.
Archival footage, still frames of rounds (usually signified by camera flashes), and grainy home movie shots are used in an artsy, momentarily color montage to segue through La Motta’s next series of victorious fights, his new marriage to Vickie and the arrival of their children, and his brother’s marriage, up until 1947. There’s no one left for Jake to fight, so Joey sets up an opportunity to box newcomer Tony Janiro, which requires the loss of a few pounds. Jake’s explosive nature continues to get in his way, with paranoia and jealousy deteriorating his social life, even while he pulverizes Janiro. Next, he’s given an opportunity for a title shot, provided he loses against Billy Fox, which results in a thrown match that is so obvious it gets him suspended. By 1949, he finally gets his big chance, challenging middleweight champion Marcel Cerdan to win the belt. A year later, he’s unable to retain it.
The sound effects are exaggerated and the choreography stunning, with constantly moving, revolving camerawork, slow motion, and close-ups that capture the sweaty, bloody, violent, popcorn-strewn stage for gloved combat and the gladiators who compete there. As with most of Scorsese’s films, “Raging Bull” deals with both action and relationships, with the profession of the protagonist negatively interfering with his ability to relate and love. Here, the addition of so many unlikeable qualities is his undoing, preventing friends, family, and business associates from participating in his success – which significantly aids in the loss of everything he achieved.
Unlike other sports movies, “Raging Bull” doesn’t focus on training or a final big fight to engage the audience. It’s a biopic, a drama, and a tragedy about the rise and fall of a man destined to succumb to his uncontrollable fury – a man whose poor decisions left him broken down, alone, and forgotten. It’s very much a diametric take on the emboldening triumphs of “Rocky.” While the potency of the character and his message is unquestionably strong, this isn’t a feel-good, uplifting event – the complete absence of redeeming qualities during a relentless downward spiral hinders it from being wholeheartedly enjoyable. It’s poignant but also one of the most overrated films ever made.
– Mike Massie