Raging Bull (1980)
Raging Bull is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made. Apart from being ranked as the fourth-greatest American movie by The American Film Institute, it is also included in best movies lists compiled by such magazines as Variety, Sight and Sound, Time and Rolling Stone. Yet at the time of its release, Raging Bull’s acclaim was not so universal, with critics Paulene Kael and Andrew Sarris being among the notable exceptions. Nevertheless, Rottemtomatoes.com gives it a score of 92%, with its Critics Consensus advising that “Raging Bull is often painful to watch”. For this reviewer, that summation credits the film with a power it frankly doesn’t warrant. It may not be painful to watch, but it most certainly is a chore.
Ostensibly a biopic of middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull is not so much a boxing film as it is a kitchen sink slice of Italian-American life. It is bookended by scenes of an overweight LaMotta preparing to perform his nightclub act, for which De Niro gained approximately sixty pounds. As he mumbles his way though some doggerel rhyme, the film flashes back more than twenty years to a slimmer, fitter LaMotta. The mumbling frustratingly remains.
Almost immediately the main protagonist is portrayed as an utterly loathsome character. LaMotta abuses his wife, drools over a fifteen-year-old girl (whom he later marries) and seems intent on picking a fight with anybody in and out of the ring. His one laudable trait is an unwillingness to accept the mob’s help to score a title fight. This provides the film with its sole narrative arc, but its trajectory heads in only one direction. By the film’s end, LaMotta is as irredeemable as when first encountered.
The film however has many outstanding qualities. The black and white cinematography is superb and the acting from the three principals is exceptional. De Niro won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of LaMotta, but it is Pesci and Moriarty’s performances that truly register. The boxing scenes, which only amount to about ten minutes of screentime, are brutal and indicative of the film as a whole. Each scene is impressive in and of itself, but when pieced together you’re still left with no-one to root for.
as Jake La Motta
as Sugar Ray Robinson
as Laurent Dauthuille
as Joe Louis
The Joey character, portrayed by Joe Pesci, is an amalgamation of LaMotta’s brother and LaMotta’s friend Peter Savage, who co-wrote the book on which the film is based. According to ESPN, the composite is about 20% Joey and about 80% Peter. Many of the events that occur between Jake and Joey in the film actually happened between Jake and Peter in real life. Even the "breakup" and reconciliation with Joey actually happened, in real life, with Peter.