Martin Scorcese's adaptation of a boxer's autobiography also contains content adapted (or, less generously, plagiarized) from previous films. The elements of the book that Scorcese emphasizes are the same that were at the core of "Rocky," and it is therefore fair to draw comparisons between the two: an Italian-American boxer who fights an African-American boxer and loses, an overshadowed wife figure, and a short, pudgy brother figure who doubles as a manager. What Scorcese's film does not have is any of the heart and sweetness that made "Rocky" enjoyable. Perhaps he hoped to replace the sweetness and light with a more realistic, hardcore sentiment, but he got only as far as the blood and gore and cursing, and forgot to add any meaning. There are no stakes to Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro)'s fights, as there were for Rocky's: Jake's life winds up the same regardless of their outcome. It's difficult to find a reason to care whether he wins or loses, unless you're content to root for him because he's the main character. "Rocky" knew that wasn't a good enough reason, and fleshed out its characters and world. If there were no elements of LaMotta's book that could have given some originality and depth to the story, Scorcese should have invented some.
Instead of filling in the story's sizable gaps with original content, Scorcese rips off "The Godfather" in completely needless, bizarrely particular ways. There are grainy pictures at a wedding party where everyone is wearing the exact clothes from the beginning of Coppola's movie, and one character even reaches over to bring a woman in a red dress and wide-brimmed hat into the shot. Why import this familiar scene, stripping it of the layers of meaning it enjoyed in its original context? It adds nothing to "Raging Bull," not even the reflected luster of the superior film being copied. Later, during one of many interminable and repetitive domestic abuse scenes, a man chases his wife into a bathroom through a narrow, mirrored side-door. The door swings mostly shut, but he throws it open again. Some of the angles are the same as in that famous, far more important and meaningful scene from "The Godfather." Why such meticulous thievery? Again, it adds nothing to "Raging Bull," but it does serve to remind me of a movie I'd rather be watching, and it causes me to marvel again at the delicate plotting and characterizations that made it work in its native setting.
Near the end, LaMotta deadpans a scene from "On the Waterfront." The audacity. The conceit. Clearly, we're being asked to marvel at how true the words are of LaMotta's life (well, of course they are, the movie has been written that way, and being based on LaMotta's autobiography is no excuse), but I'm not sure what we're supposed to feel during this scene. Are we supposed to feel sad for this wretched stereotype we've spent over two hours with? Are we supposed to take pleasure in the pathetic turn his life has taken? Never having been given a reason to care about anyone or anything on screen, I feel nothing either way. It's simply a bore to watch. There is one thing to be sad about, and that's that DeNiro's career has become uncomfortably like LaMotta's: he, too, has lately been reduced to lazily reading scripts for cash.
Scorcese fans, and there are many of them who know far more about movies than I do, will say what they will about Sorcese's technical chops as a filmmaker and his fluency in the history and language of cinema. It seems inexplicable to me that so few critics saw the same "Raging Bull" that Pauline Kael saw, about which she wrote, "Scorsese's excesses verge on self-parody. You can feel the director sweating for greatness, but there's nothing under the scenes... De Niro's portrayal of La Motta is a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of a character inside." That describes the "Raging Bull" I watched. Without a story to put Scorcese's talents in service of, they're wasted. "Raging Bull" is preening and shallow, and every element in it was done better before and since by filmmakers who understand the primacy of narrative.