Raging Bull Reviews
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.
Robert Deniro was phenomenal as Jake LaMotta, breathing new life to a character in ways that made his performance really astonishing back then. He got in shape to play a boxer and then put on a hulking amount of weight to play his has-been alter-ego in the later part. I really like how Deniro acts against Joe Pesci as his brother, who by the way, was Pesci's major film role that got him public recognition around the time when he was thinking of quitting on his acting career. Most of my favourite scenes are with Deniro and Pesci in the picture playing off as brothers.
Paul Schrader who wrote Taxi Driver gave the same raw, insightful treatment to the film as he did for Taxi driver. The screenplay was relentless, yet enticing to see in motion picture. His work had fleshed out the main character in ways that makes him real or at best interesting.
There are many problems with Jake LaMotta himself as a human being. He is angry, mean, ugly, judgmental, paranoid and violent worst of all. He has the rough aspect of being human such as perseverance and physicality. Jake LaMotta possesses no real redeeming qualities that would consider him a decent person in the eye of society. He even asked his ex-wife if he was that bad in real life after watching this film. She told him that he was worse.
I love the black and white cinematography for Raging Bull that gives it the mid-century. It also makes the film look more timeless, aging much better than if it was in colour. During the montage sequence that does feature colour, it is a cleaver form of storytelling without words that glamourizes LaMotta's life. How they film the boxing scenes were mesmerizing as far as how brutal and hyperbolic it appears. There are parts like the face of a boxer is bursting open with blood or how much smoke is brewing around them like they are descending to hell.
Now I hate it when people come into these films having fixed expectations and end up hating it. Raging Bull is not all about boxing since it is only a backdrop. It revolves around the character study of a man retaining an abusive lifestyle and paranoid oversights during his prime. And whatever I said earlier about Jake LaMotta was referring to him, not the actor playing him. Raging Bull is a masterpiece that easily stands out among others in that decade and is definitely on my top 3 best films by Scorsese.