Coulda Been a Contenda (Part 2): Raging Bull

Jul 2, 2007
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:DeNiro gained weight and got an Oscar

Cons:Not very interesting

The Bottom Line: Could have used a more interesting subject, DeNiro won an Oscar portraying the dysfunctional and boring Jake LaMotta.

Raging Bull (1980)

A movie in search of a screenplay is how I best can describe Raging Bull. There are plenty of reviews out there to tell you this is the best film of the 80s, if not all time, but I've watched it a number of times, including when it was first run at the local theater and I am still trying to see the greatness others are so quick to bestow upon it. Sure, there are gritty scenes in the ring, and LaMotta has a mercurial temper that makes it dangerous to be around him in his normal life too. But when all is said and done I ask you, like the song says, "is that all there is?"

The movie purports to be a biography of Jake LaMotta, a middleweight boxer who briefly held the World Championship during the early 50s. First, tell me the truth; did you ever hear of Jake LaMotta before you watched this movie? The first rule of a biopic is to have an interesting subject; but who cares about Jake LaMotta? The screenplay gives LaMotta no redeeming qualities but serves him up raw, a quivering mass of insecurities with a granite jaw and the will to win. After a horrifying beating delivered by Sugar Ray Robinson, the bleeding DeNiro interrupts Robinson's moment of triumph to say, "you didn't knock me down."

The black and white boxing footage is lauded as realistic; however, as one who has boxed in the ring I would call it brutal, but not particularly realistic. The flurries of repetitive punches delivered with the same hand do not look like a boxer. They are stylized representations of violence. Maybe LaMotta fought like a street fighter, but I doubt if Sugar Ray Robinson did.

DeNiro got into boxing trim and also put on about 60 pounds of flab to play the out of shape older LaMotta as he worked as a stand up comedian in strip clubs. I would call it a remarkable physical acting performance. I just wish LaMotta had a little more personality to give me something to root for. Joe Pesci, in this early role, established the character he would play in several Scorsese films. Here he plays the brother who acts as the manager of Jake LaMotta who also erupts in violence in a scene we have all seen Pesci do even if we haven't yet seen Raging Bull.

Thelma Schoonmaker edited the boxing sequences with a skill reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah with alternating slo-mo shots juxtaposed with speeded up and normal speed action. She won an Oscar for the editing as DeNiro won best actor. Lots of the soundtrack is ambient sounds, radios playing, street sounds, people in the next apartment talking, but the blows in the ring are accompanied by wild animal growls, cries and grunts as well as sounding like clubs striking against beef carcasses.

The movie's first half is confusing, as the initial bout looks like he beats the hell out of the opponent but the judges give it to the other guy. You think maybe he has been given a raw deal, but before that can sink in you see him abusing his wife and pretty soon you're wrapped up in the dysfunctional and boring life of Jake LaMotta. By the time the second half rolls around the pattern is well established. Apparently LaMotta wouldn't take a dive, but then he does and it breaks his heart. After that, he can't win a bout.

Scorsese is so self consciously trying to do great things that it is almost painful to watch as his characters emulate other film characters like Brando – DeNiro as LaMotta rehearses the "contenda" speech from Brando’s On the Waterfront, practicing in the dressing room mirror before going out to do his monologue in the strip club, then getting up to do a few stiffly grunting boxing moves as the camera fades to black.

The DVD is presented in black and white in 1.85:1 theatrical aspect. There are plenty of commentaries including one from Martin Scorsese, however I’ve heard two or three of his before and did not want to hear another "look at me" self congratulatory bunch of stuff so I'll leave that for another time. I found Raging Bull to be a well done character study of an uninteresting, one-dimensional subject.

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