Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.
My original plan today was to knock out two films--Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby, but I’ve discovered exactly why the person who gave me MDB gave it to me: it doesn’t work. So I’m stuck with just Raging Bull on the day. Fortunately, there’s enough film here that it can handle being reviewed on its own. I’ve seen most of this movie before, but never all at once and never in order.
But first, a story. More than a year ago, on a podcast concerning the film Bronson, James Blake Ewing of Cinema Sights compared that film to Raging Bull, saying that the Bronson character reminded him in many ways of Jake LaMotta. In his mind, the difference was that Raging Bull has more interesting characters around the main character. Having now seen this film in full and front to back, I’m not so sure I agree. LaMotta’s brother is interesting, but I don’t give a rat’s about anyone else, except LaMotta himself, and even there not for the reasons you might think.
Raging Bull is the somewhat true story based on the memoir by middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta about his own life. LaMotta, both in his heyday and well past his prime, is played by Robert De Niro, in what can only be described as the role of a lifetime. Had De Niro not already been a legitimate star, this film would have made him one. As it turns out, it made him into the legend he’s been ever since (barring his not-too-successful comedic turns).
The film is essentially the story of LaMotta, and is much more of a character study than anything else. LaMotta is a beast, a brutal force of nature, at home only in the ring. Outside of the ring, he is ignorant, brutal, and ridiculously jealous, assuming that everyone is chasing after his wife and concerned if his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) so much as looks at or talks to another man. Through much of his career, LaMotta is managed by his brother Joey (Joe Pesci in his first major role), who attempts to make sense of Jake’s life and his nearly constant rage. The film takes place over a number of years, covering the bulk of LaMotta’s boxing career and into his post career. It’s ugly and almost nihilistic. Jake LaMotta comes across as both sadistic and masochistic, jealous, destructive, and animalistic.
The film also discusses Lamotta’s post boxing career as a not-very-good host/entertainer at a nightclub and his eventual arrest and imprisonment on a vice rap for “introducing” under-aged girls to men in his club. In a sense, this is part and parcel of his professional career, which included a thrown fight at the behest of the mob with the promise of a title shot hanging in the balance.
I get it. I get why people love this film and I’m happy to have watched it. I’m happy to have it in my collection, although it’s not a film I’m planning on seeing again soon. It’s one that I can point at to show that my personal DVD case isn’t loaded with crappy action films and weird horror. See? I have some classics, too. But it’s not a film that I think I could legitimately sit down and watch for pleasure, because I don’t find a lot of pleasure in it.
While Joe Pesci makes one hell of a feature film debut, this film belongs entirely to Robert De Niro, who packed on something like 65 pounds to play the older, post-career version of Jake LaMotta. It’s one of those physical transformations that needs to be seen to be believed, so dramatic is it. De Niro actually looks like a different person, and there’s not much (except for the blasted nose that took way too many punches) that’s fake or padding. It’s a testament to the man’s dedication that he did this to himself physically for a role.
For me, the most impressive parts of the film are the actual boxing matches, which are great to watch. I’d have loved to have seen more of these, but I understand why Scorsese didn’t include more of them. Most, like the rest of the film, are ugly and brutish, featuring one person or another being beaten into a bloody pulp. I get it, and while I like the fight montage in the middle of the film, I could have used more of it.
Raging Bull is unrelenting, and it is one of the films that often comes up when people talk about “great” movies. It is there for a reason. But like many great films, this is a story that needs to be told simply because of its content, not because the story itself is pleasurable or entertaining. It’s not. Watch it for the performances and watch it because it’s Scorsese at the top of his game. You can even expect to be wowed by it and by impressed by just how good these performances are and at the level of mastery Scorsese demonstrates. Just don’t expect to enjoy yourself in the traditional sense.
Why to watch Raging Bull: It solidified De Niro and Scorsese, and it made Joe Pesci.
Why not to watch: It’s pretty unpleasant.