(United States, 1980)
It is with some embarrassment that I must admit to not having seen Raging Bull until 1998 – far after I had seen Scorsese's other well-known movies. I have never been interested in "boxing movies," and, even though I knew that a Scorsese film about a boxer would not be like any other director's film about a boxer, I wasn't interested. Then, in 1998, Roger Ebert came to town to do a shot-by-shot analysis of the movie, so I decided I should see it beforehand. I ended up watching Raging Bull three times within a week: once on DVD, once in a theater, and once in the Ebert shot-by-shot workshop (called, at the time, "Democracy in the Dark"). Once I had seen Raging Bull, I became one of its staunchest defenders (like a new convert to a religion). It is a brilliant motion picture, with as much depth as anything Scorsese has committed to the screen over the course of a long and fruitful career. Raging Bull isn't about sports; it's about human nature – the powerful, unstoppable, animalistic force that lurks deep within even the most urbane and cultured of us. For me, this is the director's best film. Others will argue for Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, and, while both of those movies rank in my Top 100, neither has a higher position than this one.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Raging Bull opens in 1941 when Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), an up-and-coming fighter, is battling his way into the upper echelon of the Middleweight Class. Over the years, he wins several key bouts, including one against his arch-rival, Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes), but his unwillingness to capitulate with the local godfather keeps him from an opportunity to participate in a championship match. Meanwhile, away from the ring, La Motta falls in love with 15-year old Vicki (Cathy Moriarty), who he marries after discarding his shrewish first wife. Vicki becomes Jake's greatest prize (a wife, in his view, is not a companion, but a possession) and the source of his most extreme pain. His own insecurity is so great that he cannot accept that a woman as beautiful as Vicki could be faithful to him. Hence, he is constantly haunted by a belief that she is sleeping with someone else - perhaps even his brother (Joe Pesci). In the late '40s, La Motta gets his first shot at a championship fight, but with one huge condition: he must take a fall. He does it so badly that an investigation is launched and he is almost thrown out of boxing. Two years later, he wins the championship, only to lose it in a subsequent bout to Sugar Ray. By the late '50s and early '60s, when the film ends, Jake has become a pathetic figure - a broke, overweight loser who has spent time in jail for corrupting the morals of a minor, has lost his wife and children, and is trying to earn a few bucks by doing a cheap standup routine.
Bio-pics often fall into one of two categories: overblown hero-worship or a dry, dull textbook account. It's rare that a movie with the moniker "based on the life of..." comes across as anything more than sporadically energetic and marginally entertaining. Raging Bull is the perfect counterexample, and a brilliant argument for film makers to continue to work in this genre. The picture takes the life of boxer Jake La Motta, a Middleweight icon from the '40s and '50s, and develops one of the most compelling character studies ever to reach the big screen. For all 129 minutes, director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro (in the title role) have us mesmerized by this individual who is by turns sympathetic, sad, and horrifying. Raging Bull may be the best film of the 1980s. And, if not, it's certainly perilously close to the zenith.
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