Raging Bull (review)

Rocky Road

The other great movie about boxing, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is as dismal as Rocky is triumphant, as hopeless as Rocky is hopeful. The true story of championship prizefighter Jake LaMotta, this is unmannered, unpretentious filmmaking that tells its story with startling authenticity, but it’s a movie that leaves you feeling as beat up as one of LaMotta’s opponents.
Scorsese (Bringing Out the Dead) follows the short rise and fall of LaMotta (Robert DeNiro: The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Analyze This), from a punk on the mean streets of the Bronx to the middleweight boxing champion of the world to pathetic has-been. Managed by his brother, Joey (Joe Pesci: Lethal Weapon 4, Home Alone), Jake works his way through all comers to hand Sugar Ray Robinson his first knockdown and first professional defeat, but Jake’s refusal to accept the sponsorship of local mob boss Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto) hinders his career. The many boxing scenes are unpleasant, full of blood and gore and the meaty sound of punches landing on already smashed faces, leaving you with the impression that you’re right in the ring with the fighters.

As volatile and violent outside the ring as he in within, LaMotta is as thoroughly unlikable an anti-hero as you’ll find depicted onscreen, a man who can communicate only with his fists, and seems to have nothing to communicate but rage. Pathological jealous and insecure, he treats the women he loves the most with contempt, abandoning his first wife when he meets 15-year-old Vickie (Cathy Moriarty: Cop Land). He’s totally smitten with Vicki, but it’s not long before he begins to suspect her unfaithful, and even this savvy and streetsmart “girl from the neighborhood,” who’s probably been around men like Jake her entire life, finds it impossible to cope with him, and constantly threatens to leave him.

Raging Bull takes on an almost documentary style, particularly early in the film, as Scorsese effortlessly re-creates New York City of the 1940s. The detail paid to cars and clothes is expected, of course, but the creamy warmth of the black-and-white film stock, as if the film has faded to an ivory-and-sepia, makes the film feel genuinely old. Many of Jake’s matches are depicted through series of scratchy black-and-white stills, and Jake and Joey move through life’s milestones — weddings, children — through 8mm “family” films, their colors seemingly long since paled. Raging Bull feels pulled together from found material rather than expressly created.

But it’s the naturalistic acting that makes Raging Bull the great film that it is. Pesci — who was ready to give up his faltering acting career before DeNiro convinced him to take the part of Joey — is a powder keg, a twitchy bundle of fury that explodes at the unlikeliest of moments. And DeNiro… There’s a reason why film fans consider him a god, and Jake LaMotta is it. DeNiro trained with the real LaMotta (who eventually ranked him “in the first top 20 middleweights”) and, now famously, gained 50 pounds to portray the older LaMotta (rendering himself shockingly unrecognizable… except that he looks like James Caan, who, weirdly, played the son of DeNiro’s character in The Godfather Part II). But it isn’t DeNiro’s willingness to transform himself physically that makes his LaMotta so terrifyingly real, but how he disappears mentally into the role. There’s no ego at work in his performance, no demand to be recognized as a “great actor.” He simply is LaMotta.

By the time LaMotta, old and fat, washes up in New York City in the 60s, he’s performing nightclub acts of awful stand-up comedy and recitations of scenes from famous movies. The final scene of the film sees him rehearsing in a grungy dressing room, reciting to himself in the mirror Brando’s “I coulda been a contenda” speech from On the Waterfront. The irony, of course, is that LaMotta was a contender, and a winner, and even that wasn’t enough to make him happy.

AFI 100: #4
unforgettable movie moment:
Joey, enraged over a slight by Salvy, one of Tommy Como’s henchmen, drags the mobster half out his car and slams the door against his head, over and over.

previous AFI 100 film:
3. Casablanca
next AFI 100 film:
5. Singin’ in the Rain

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