Whenever mention of Raging Bull is made, invariably, the first thing that usually springs to mind is the physical transformation that Robert De Niro made during the course of the film - gaining fifty pounds to portray boxing legend Jake LaMotta in his misfortunate, later years. As time has passed, it's become something of an anecdote, when in reality, it's a mark of distinction as to why Raging Bull is one of cinema's most enduring films.
The reason Martin Scorsese's masterpiece is such a resounding work, is because everyone involved in the making of the film, showered it with the same amount of dedication and authenticity. The entire cast -- Joe Pesci (LaMotta's put upon brother), Cathy Moriarity (LaMotta's embattered wife) and the exceptional supporting actors across the board -- understands that this seminal work is dark, and they give of it what's required.
Scorsese's direction and De Niro's lead performance set a tone of unbridled realism, no stone unturned in trying to tell the story of a boxer, who's limited grasp of reason and existence as a creature tied to his instinctive desires, leads him time and again to make choices that inevitably create his own downfall. LaMotta is not a sympathetic character, and Scorsese makes no attempt to excuse his actions; Raging Bull is simply a powerfully hypnotic character study.
The backbone of the film is De Niro's performance and you'll be hard pressed to find a more viscerally mesmerizing one, as his LaMotta drives the story propulsively from the early days of LaMotta's career to a solitary man who's demonized by his regrets. In the beginning of the film, we find Jake on the cusp of attaining his dream, to be Middleweight champion of the world, yet unable to get his chance due to the criminal element of mob influence in the hierarchy of boxing and his insistence on doing things his way. It's during this time that we are introduced to his brother Joey (and manager), who has friends in the mob, who put him in the position of trying to stay true to his brother and also do his job -- get Jake a title shot.
When Vicki (LaMotta's future wife) enters into LaMotta's life, we begin to see the manifestation of how Jake's tempest of emotions will lead him down a troubled road. LaMotta's greatest skill in the ring, is his inability to allow his athletic limitations to overcome his will to win - but this strength is his greatest weakness outside the ring, as he's also unable to quell his temper and need for complete and total dominant control.
Not even the eventual accomplishment of becoming Middleweight champion of the world is enough to stave off his greatest emotional weakness -- self esteem. LaMotta is never able to believe what he preaches to himself, that he's worth what he's acquired in his life. He views Vicki as a trophy, but never believes that he could actually deserve her. Joey is his confidant, his truest ally, yet LaMotta is unable to trust him, as his perpetual belief that his wife must cheat on him, forces him to turn against his brother. At every turn in LaMotta's life, suspicion rules his thinking and he eventually drives away those closest to him.
By the end of the film, LaMotta is alone and feeding off the scraps of fame that still surround him, living in Miami, the proprietor of a small nightclub. He's sent to prison, on a conviction of corrupting two female minors, and this is where we see LaMotta, for the first time without distraction, face himself for what his life has become. The brutal intensity of De Niro's performance in the prison cell scene, is even more daunting than the boxing scene's, as we are finally given the chance to see one person turn his anger inwards. After his release, LaMotta returns to New York, having lost his nightclub, and making a living working as a poor stand-up comic and reciting Shakespeare. His final attempt to reconcile with his brother is a failure, and the movie ends with LaMotta reciting the famous Marlon Brando "I coulda been a contender" lines from On The Waterfront into a mirror; reflecting a bloated, broken down man who's a caricature of himself.
Director Martin Scorsese's brilliant decision to shoot the film in black and white, infuses the movie with a gritty, dark quality that belies the dangerous under torrent of LaMotta's nature; the boxing scenes (which only total eighteen minutes of the two hour plus running time) are done in such a way, that the brutality that is the nature of the sport, is uncompromised, testing the fortitude of the viewer -- there is no attempt to cut any corners; boxing is given the treatment of being a battle of savage intensity.
There is nothing about Raging Bull that is anything other than spot on. The direction, cinematography, acting, story and feel is perfect, and the story of Jake LaMotta is told honestly and without any attempt to curb the truth of the man - he's a "raging bull" of intensity, violence and incapable of controlling his temper. This is a film about boxing, in that it's the story of a famous boxer's rise and fall, but it's really an introspection into a man defined by his animalistic nature. It's also one of cinema's finest moments, unparalleled in its power.
( originally published by me on another website in 2005 )
I figure that because it's a biopic about a historical boxing figure, I should post it here. If not, feel free to move it elsewhere.