Raging Bull Reviews
Drama 40% Sport 60%
Gripping, brutal, well directed, and the best performance from Robert De Niro, Raging Bull claims the championship for best boxing movie.
The opening sequence sets the stage for something special; De Niro is dancing in place alone in the ring in poetic slow motion, we see the film will be in black and white and there is a smoky haze in the background as the opening credits roll. We will soon see just how crazy this man is, as he turns over the dining table in a fight with his first wife over how long to cook his steak, yells down at his complaining neighbor that he's going to kill and eat his dog, and then goads his younger brother (Pesci) into punching him in the face as hard as he can. Throughout the movie, the dialog between De Niro and Pesci is loud, confrontational, argumentative, and fantastic.
The times were certainly different, and La Motta was part blunt New Yorker and part Cro-Magnon. He makes out with his wife on the floor in front of his sister-in-law and their toddlers. He's insanely jealous, and accuses his brother of having had sex with his wife (lines I will never forget, and sometimes quote: "I heard things Joey, I heard things" ... "What things you heard?" ... "I heard some things"). After confronting his wife, she "confesses" out of frustration, so he marches over to his brother's house and beats him up, also punching his wife in the face in the process, all in front of his brother's stunned kids.
La Motta met his second wife Vikki when she was just 15, and married her when she was 16. In the film she's played well by Cathy Moriarty, though she seems much older (she was only 20 at the time though). In another unforgettable scene, this one erotically charged, she kisses his body when he's not allowed to have sex before a fight, and then after he goes to the sink to pour ice water down his shorts to cool off, shows up in the mirror and begins kissing him some more. Scorsese uses a perfect amount of restraint here, however, and we never 'see' anything.
Unfortunately, he doesn't apply this same restraint to violence in the right, overstating it considerably, even considering the type of fighter La Motta was. We see blood spraying as if it were out of a hose, and boxers enduring more punishment than humanly possible. Maybe this is how Scorsese the man saw boxing, having not been a fan beforehand, or Scorsese the artist preferred to paint the violence of the men involved in the sport. Regardless, it was not necessary. That said, seeing De Niro at the end of the last bout with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes), his face a meatloaf, eyes puffed over but grinning like a ghoul as he tottered over to Sugar Ray, taunting him despite the beating he just took, saying "ya never got me down Ray", is another memorable moment.
Cut to 6 years later, a fat La Motta is poolside in Florida smoking a cigar, having retired. The legend is that De Niro gained 60-70 pounds over 4 months by eating high-end food in France and Italy, and it's just another larger-than-life aspect of this movie. It's painful to watch his awkward stand-up act, his crude jokes, his philandering with women in the bar, and getting thrown into jail for having let young teenagers into his bar (they having 'proved' being of legal age by French kissing him). His beer belly hangs out of his shirt while he's in a pay phone. Like an idiot, he hammers the jewels out of his championship belt, looking to pawn them, and not understanding they're worth far more in the belt. He's estranged from his brother, and the scene with De Niro following Pesci out of a convenience store down the street is heart wrenching.
The film ends with De Niro quoting Brando in 'On the Waterfront' as he practices his stand-up act in front of a mirror. He does it with just the right amount of poor delivery (he's acting as La Motta after all) and pathos, it's another great scene, but I have to say, the words themselves ring false - La Motta's brother WAS looking out for him, among other things beating the hell out of some guys in a nightclub when they were getting too close to his wife, and La Motta did NOT end up with a one-way ticket to Palookaville after throwing a fight for the mafia, he ended up with a title fight a couple of years later and won it.
Scorsese may have included too much violence, but he does so many other brilliant things. Black and white was an excellent choice. He uses slow motion to create an epic feel to moments. He uses stills of some of the boxing victories, and footage altered to appear as if it's from old home movies to show events in some of the intervening years. He tells the story with brutal honesty. Most of all, he gives outstanding actors freedom, and they really delivered.