De Niro Lets His Raging Bull Loose In Scorsese's China Shop

Mar 29, 2003
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:From a technical and narrative standpoint, almost everything

Cons:Didn't connect with every punch, like its hype would indicate

The Bottom Line: Raging Bull is damn good. Just not "The Best Film of the Eighties" good.

"Raging Bull" has been called "The Best Film of the 1980s" so many times, that classification should be included as part of its title. Released in December of 1980 [author's tangent: Almost a year to the day after The Clash's similarly-designated "London Calling: The Best Album of the 1980s", was released], "Bull" is by now the well-known story of former middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta, and how his jealousy, his mule's stubbornness, and his overindulgences eventually ruined his once-promising career and life.

It is also, tangentially, the story of how Robert De Niro won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar for his performance and for his now-legendary weight gain (reports suggest the actual amount he put on was between 50 and 70 pounds), and how Martin Scorsese, in an Oscar-night boondoggle, lost the Best Director prize to Robert Redford. This latter slight is still felt by the great director (whose own name should be changed to "Martin Scorsese: Best Director To Never Win An Oscar").

But the thing about "Raging Bull" that jumps out at me most is the intense loneliness that envelops the film.

Boxing movies, by nature of the sport they document, are inherently lonely. I can't imagine a more isolating occupation than the one that asks one man to stand alone inside a ring with another, and beat each other to the point where the one least bloody is declared the winner. No coach, no manager, no trainer can take the punishment for you, can muster up the courage for you, or can hold your head up when/if you lose. Jake LaMotta knew this better than anyone. Undersized at the best of times, he was a bulldog in the ring, finishing his career with a record of 83-19-4 (30 KOs). So feared was he that his handlers (including his brother Joey) had a tough time finding fighters to face him. The results of which were six bouts with equally feared Sugar Ray Robinson, including 3 in a span of 5 months during the years 1942-3.

The film wastes no time showing Jake's loneliness. The opening credits play out over a slow-motion sequence of Jake, alone in a ring, dancing through his pre-fight warm-ups. This image is immediately contrasted with another scene of Jake, this one from two decades later in his life, as he rehearses the stilted monologue from his club show. The former image shows a man, draped in a leopard-print robe, at his peak physically but seemingly without a care or a friend in the world. The latter shows the same man, now bloated and stuffed into an ill-fitting tuxedo, with many cares and still no friends. The rest of the film concerns itself with how Jake goes from prowling warrior to punchline, while managing to never make any relationships that last.

Jake's loneliness manifests itself in other smaller ways. One scene shows a party raging in his hotel room, the night of a big title fight. Jake hibernates in his bedroom, away from the noise and the merriment. Another scene, showcasing Scorsese's prodigious Steadicam camera work, follows Jake from dressing room to corridor and through a screaming crowd to the ring. All in one long take. Even when surrounded by throngs of people, including members of his entourage and well-wishing fans, there is nothing but soulless focus in Jake's eyes. This, a moment when admiration his heaped on him most, cannot be enjoyed because of the task at hand. It is a stunning moment, full of visceral and intense energy, but also much sadness.

While being a heartbreakingly lonely movie, "Raging Bull" -- this might be the least revelatory insight I have about the movie -- also finds time to be an exceedingly violent one. Not in any typically preposterous way, mind you. Whenever Scorsese feels the need to include some carnage, it's always very real and very purposeful.

Of course, much has been made about the justifiably acclaimed boxing matches. They do a great job getting the audience inside the ring, and giving them a taste of what the boxers themselves might be seeing. Superbly edited (by Scorsese stalwart Thelma Schoonmaker) and crisply shot (by Michael Chapman), the fights never last long enough to become boring, and never tread in the waters of cartoonery (like the ones in a "Rocky" film might). Instead, they are short and spirited, bloody and brutal. The brutality here reminded me a lot of the punishment Terry Malloy took at the end of "On the Waterfront". (Of course, "Bull" has other allusions to make to that fine film. Jake, alone in his dressing room late in life, recites Brando's "I coulda been a contenda" speech. Only instead of the brother being the one to blame for the fighter's misery, this time the fighter has no one to blame but himself. The irony is palpable).)

But the boxing matches are just the beginning of the film's violent tone. Jake can't seem to separate his boxer persona from his real life one, and there's always a sense that he's ready to blow up at any moment, unleashing his fists of fury. In almost every scene with his wife Vicki this feeling is prevalent, even though Jake rarely raises a hand to her. He does of course come to blows with his brother Joey. One notable scene follows Jake to Joey's apartment, after an intensely dramatic confession, to beat some retribution into his younger brother. The scene, even though we know it's coming, is still plenty shocking (I suspect this stems from the fact that -- and this story is apocryphal -- no one told Joe Pesci that De Niro would attack him; their clumsy fight in Joey's dining room becomes that much more real because of this supposed ignorance).

The most harrowing scene, though, comes early on. Jake, in the wake of his first professional defeat, sits at his kitchen table with Joey. Nihilistically, and apropos of nothing, he asks his younger brother to punch him in the face. After numerous refusals (and, of course, a number of homophobic insults), Joey relents. He unleashes jab after right-handed jab, until Jake's still fresh wounds open up. This scene is played very straight; the punches look real instead of movieland fake. And Jake's face, to put a capper on what is already a ludicrous moment, wears an enigmatic smirk throughout, showing no effects from the pain. This is our first indication that this is less a man, and more a real raging bull.

Director Scorsese, always a very prudent cinematic stylist, is on top of his game here. For the most part, he captures the action in documentary-style black and white. But selected moments (the opening credit sequence; a mid-film domestic montage) are given a noticeable pinkish hue. Is this Scorsese imploring us to give Jake a chance, to look at him through rose-coloured glasses? Or, more gruesomely, is this a stain, an indication of the bloodshed to come? I'd have to lean to the latter, especially when one notices that, while the ring announcer informs the crowd that Jake has just lost his title to Robinson, Scorsese pans to a close-up of a rope soaked with Jake's fresh blood.

Scorsese's muse, Robert De Niro, was justifiably praised for his work here, even without considering his Herculean weight gain. His Jake is a seamless performance. The id come to life in the film's first half, De Niro never lets the gigantic personality veer off into caricature territory. But it is the performance in the second half, where our most renowned contemporary actor must play a man who couldn't act his way out of a paper bag ("Give me a stage / where this bull here could rage" he monotonously repeats into a mirror), that really shines. On top of all this, De Niro must show us Jake's desolation while never letting us feel sorry for him. After all, this is a man who brought his misfortunes on himself. To pity him would negate that notion.

Joe Pesci, who sparred with De Niro in both Scorsese's "GoodFellas" and "Casino", literally spars with De Niro here (I find it funny that, shortly after Jake expresses a desire to fight Joe Louis, the reigning heavyweight champion of the world and undisputed boxing legend, he is seen in a sparring match with Joe Pesci; probably not the best way to make that dream happen). Pesci is a force of naturalism, exhibiting none of the shtick that made his later works with Scorsese/De Niro such over-the-top treats. His Joey is the younger brother, and not much more. Sure, he's got the silver tongue working, and the hot head too, but Joey is not a flashy man like his older brother. Pesci manages to show us Joey's normalcy, while making him always watchable.

Cathy Moriarty, all of 20 when the film was shot, plays Jake's second wife Vicki. The two met at a neighbourhood pool when Vicki was just 15. I didn't buy that Moriarty was that young, but, that being said, she holds her own with the acting heavyweights she's paired with. Vicki is little more than a device -- a punching bag for Jake's rage -- but Moriarty manages to fill the character with some humanity. And physically, she's big enough to be De Niro's match. Anyone of smaller stature would have wilted under Jake's hot breath.

I'm not giving "Raging Bull" the full five stars. I really have no justifiable reason, other than that it didn't completely entrance me. I left the theatre after a recent screening marveling at the technique, the style, the acting, and even terribly moved by the prevailing sense of loneliness. But, like a waft of smoke in the wind, those feelings quickly dissipated. This "Raging Bull" may have been let loose in the China Shop, but when all was said and done, not a single plate was broken.

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