Directed by: Martin Scorsese || Produced by: Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff
Screenplay by: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin || Starring: Robert de Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana, Frank Vincent, Mario Gallo, Frank Adonis, Johnny Barnes
Music by: Robbie Robertson || Cinematography: Michael Chapman || Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 129 minutes
Debate over which of Martin Scorsese’s films is the best tend to fluctuate between Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull, and Goodfellas (1990). It’s been said that most filmmakers are lucky if they’re able to make one great movie over their entire lifetime, but Scorsese seems to release at least one industry benchmark per decade. Even the relatively divisive Wolf of Wall Street (2013) garnered positive reviews, was a popular box office success, and continued the auteur New Wave director’s streak of transgressive, innovative filmmaking. Everyone else from his New Hollywood generation of directors (mid-1960’s-late 1970’s) has either sold out, gotten old and boring, or retired, e.g. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, etc.
Scorsese has been a rock ‘n roll filmmaker all his life, in other words, and one of his earliest and hardest-hitting films remains Raging Bull, the definitive “boxing movie” of all time, in my opinion. One of the reasons I’ve never been too into the Rocky franchise (1976-2015), at least not until last year’s Creed (2015), was how much it paled in comparison to the raw, visceral tone and unforgettable characters of Raging Bull. I’m not a big fan of boxing in general, but with regards to its depiction in cinema, to me there’s Raging Bull and then there’s everything else. A few of the Rocky movies are entertaining and timeless enough for fun nostalgia-viewings, but movies like The Fighter (2010), Southpaw (2015), Cinderella Man (2005), and even Million Dollar Baby (2004) all have this generic, cliched feel to them that makes my eyes glaze over with disinterest.
You see? It’s not just romantic comedies and Nicholas Sparks-movies I find boring.
None of your typical boxing or sports-movie tropes apply to Raging Bull. In fact, I’d wager most ex-jocks or high school basketball coaches wouldn’t know how to make heads or tails of this film. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker certainly embrace the physicality and raw violence that accompany the sport of boxing, but there are no speeches about teamwork or individual perseverance, no old mentor-young athlete relationships that depict the fruits of hard labor and a resilient worth ethic, no heartwarming ending about winning the championship or one’s self-respect, none of that crap! Raging Bull embraces the ugly side of combat sports and professional athletics, and that’s what I love about it. Its story is as much about the inner turmoil and borderline psychopathic rage of its star (Robert de Niro as the titular Bull, Jake LaMotta), and how that translates into his physical performance in the ring. The film demonstrates just how easily negative emotions and destructive personal behavior can lead to success in athletics, as well as horrific failure. The story and characters make little apology for this and there is no effort to spruce up this cold, blunt message with any hamfisted social commentary or happy ending.
Besides the brilliant, unapologetic story, characters, and themes, Scorsese is a directing fiend, both in the action-packed boxing matches and the wide variety of dramatic scenes. The former are an expertly edited series of fight sequences, which highlight the intense pain, power, and bad intentions behind every punch. Blood and sweat fly freely and frequently, though thanks to the inventive black-and-white film stock, it’s easy to confuse the two. Whether he’s dishing out the beatings or taking them, we’re absorbing heavy rain of blood, sweat, and tears Robert de Niro sheds with almost maniacal glee. Much of the boxing in this movie is stylized, but in such a way that the film emphasizes the combat’s violence and animalistic nature. Nothing about the nature of boxing is glamorized or graceful, and that’s what makes it so fascinating.
Michael Chapman’s B&W cinematography is beautiful in a similarly violent, brutal way, particularly during the boxing matches and the opening title credits. Slow-motion takes of de Niro warming up in a ring in long-shot are gorgeous in an intimidating sort of way, like watching a lion prepare to pounce on its prey (or a bull preparing to charge?).
As per the movie’s dramatic (i.e. non-beating-the-shit-out-of-people) elements, Scorsese stages a wide variety of domestic disputes, brotherly bonding sessions, and rage-fueled confrontations that at times make Raging Bull as over-the-top and melodramatic as a Bollywood romance. Raging Bull maintains a steady tone of unease and tension throughout, however, so its boiling emotions never feel cheap or contrived. The family fistfight that ensues just before end of the second act is as riotous and outrageous as any boxing match prior to it.
At times, the lack of color gives the movie this old-fashioned feel to it that makes the story seem like it could’ve taken place in the 1930’s or ’40’s, but the prevalence of television sets, boxing culture, and rock ‘n roll culture suggests a never-ending timeliness. These subtle but important mise-en-scene elements and clever sound mixing help weave together the universal appeal and relatability of the conflict within de Niro’s character, the universal human flaws within his family and within himself, which extend into his athletic combat.
Raging Bull is an uncompromising masterpiece of cinematic emotion and physicality. It’s as violent as the bloodiest ’80’s commando films, yet as emotional and psychologically thought-provoking as the most controversial drama. The true brilliance of Scorsese’s work is how the movie tells its story through action, specifically through violence that acts as an extension of the conflicts and personalities of the characters within Raging Bull’s story.
Every pummeling de Niro gives and receives progresses the story and adds further insight into his character. All this occurs without any heavy-handed pandering to make us feel good about sports, no cliched Hollywood schmaltz to rationalize the method behind Jake LaMotta’s madness. This bull merely portrays, analyzes, and explores, but does not pass shallow judgement — much like all of Scorsese’s work, and therein lies the key to his cinematic brilliance.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Raging Bull revels in the thrill of human destruction, from the physical to the psychological to the emotional. Its aesthetic beauty and attention to detail are equaled only by the subtle character designs and use of sound to tell a disturbing story in its domestic background. De Niro and then newcomers Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty are all terrific, but their performances almost feel like afterthoughts given the fluid visuals and poetic violence on-screen.
—> Raging Bull knocks down MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
? Many could see themselves getting in shape for an acting role, but how about gaining 60 pounds (27 kilograms) of fat?