A film review by Craig J. Koban




RANK: # 1 (tie)



25th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1980, R, 123 mins.


Robert DeNiro: Jake La Motta / Joe Pesci: Joey La Motta / Cathy Moriarty: Vickie La Motta


Directed by Martin Scorsese /  Written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, based on the book by Jake La Motta, Joseph Carter, and Peter Savage


At the culmination of the 1980’s the cinema magazine AMERICAN FILM asked 54 prospective US film critics to list off what they felt was the decade’s best film.

Their selections were an eclectic list, to be sure, and among them arose a compilation of twenty top contenders.  The selections ranged from fabulous populist entertainments like THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACKE.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.  Other picks were more grounded, dramatic pieces like ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, PRIZZI’S HONOR, and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.  Rounding off some of the other selections included dark film noirs like BLUE VELVET and works that took their respective stories right out of real life events like PLATOON and THE RIGHT STUFF. 

The ultimate winner was Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film RAGING BULL, the immaculate and penetrating story of the real life rise and fall of middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta.  It’s very difficult, in hindsight, to disagree with these pundits.  RAGING BULL, even 25 years after its initial theatrical run, remains not only the best film of the 80’s, but also one of the all-time masterful works of the cinema.  It truly is an amazing work. 

RAGING BULL has also benefited from other recent accolades.  ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY just voted it the 5th Greatest Film of All-time in short order company with films like CITIZEN KANE and THE GODFATHER.  The American Film Institute also recently voted the 1980 biopic number 25 on their all-time list.  Hell, even ESPN.COM voted RAGING BULL as the second greatest sports picture of all-time.   

All of these are noteworthy accomplishments, which are somewhat ironic, especially considering that the makers of the film, in a documentary on the new Special Edition DVD set, explain that the film got less than favourable reviews as a whole in 1980.  Some trade publications even went to the point of publicly slamming the film as “unreleasable” and that the distributors in no way should exhibit the film.  Even more paradoxical is the fact that RAGING BULL is a film that Scorsese did not even want to make in the first place.  In one revealing moment on the great audio commentary for the film’s DVD, he explained how he “never understood sports” and hated “sports films” as a genre that he could never personally invest in.   It's amazing the film even got made.

The story behind the making of RAGING BULL is rather murky to the general lay movie public.  IN 1973 while in Sicily making THE GODFATHER II, Robert DeNiro was becoming consumed by an autobiography entitled RAGING BULL, written by ex-champ La Motta with Joseph Carter and  Peter Savage.  The book, by DeNiro’s own admission, was not altogether very well written or thought out, but he nevertheless was enthralled and completely captivated by the main “character” of La Motta himself.   DeNiro become consumed by the book and felt it was a project in the making.  He even took the book to Scorsese as early as the filming of one of his earliest films, ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, hoping that Scorsese would share the actor’s overriding enthusiasm for the book.  Scorsese, who had worked with the then young DeNiro on MEAN STREETS, was lukewarm and highly skeptical and confessed that his own disdain of competitive sports precluded his lack of personal commitment to taking on the project. 

DeNiro, however, refused to let up.  The two continued to work together to create some of cinema’s finest films, such as 1976’s TAXI DRIVER (my pick as the best film of the 1970’s) and would later re-team on other seminal pieces like THE KING OF COMEDY, GOODFELLAS (the best film of the 90’s) CAPE FEAR, and CASINO.  Yet, it was not until the aftermath of Scorsese filming his very ambitious, if not dramatically inconsistent,  NEW YORK, NEW YORK that he finally began to develop an interest in the piece.  Some film scholars lay claim to the notion that DeNiro and RAGING BULL saved the young director’s career and life. 

Scorsese was genuinely deterred by the lack of good critical response to NEW YORK, NEW YORK and became consumed by other personal addictions.  He began to develop serious problems with drugs like cocaine, which lead to a near overdose that sent him to the hospital in 1978 to clean himself up.  While there DeNiro visited the failing director and, one last time, pleaded with him to reconsider making RAGING BULL.  Legend has it that DeNiro threw the book on the director’s bed and told him that the film should and must be made.  History, obviously, has proven that Scorsese ultimately decided to make the film.   

Obviously, it is clear that the film was an integral facet of the rebirth of Scorsese as a director of a singular vision and masterful talent, not too mention that it proved to be a form of artistic therapy for him (in one biography, Scorsese freely admits that RAGING BULL was a kind of “rehabilitation” for him).  The film, which even Scorsese and DeNiro would ponder whether anyone would actually see, did not suffer from the mixed critical reaction.  In 1980 it ended up being nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director,  Best Sound, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actor for Joe Pesci, Best Supporting Actress for Cathy Moriarty, and won only two Oscars for Best Actor for DeNiro (in one of the Academy’s most clear cut and decisive winners) and for the brilliant editing. 

Yet, in hindsight, RAGING BULL remains to be one of the most criminally overlooked films since CITIZEN KANE in Oscar history.  It failed to win for Picture, which went to the inferior ORDINARY PEOPLE, also lost for the breathtaking black and white cinematography of Michael Chapman, and also for the adapted screenplay.  Even more heinous was Scorsese’s lack of a win for Director, which ranks as the Academy’s least proud decision.  Scorsese lost to an actor turned first-time director - Robert Redford.  History has clearly demonstrated that this was a mistake, not to mention the future losses Scorsese had to actor’s turned director’s (he lost to Kevin Costner in 1990 and to Mel Gibson in 1995). 

Accomplishments (or lack of acknowledgement aside) RAGING BULL is a masterpiece – sympathetic, sad, melancholy, and emotional and physically horrifying, with scenes and images that still, to this day, burn on to the screen of my subconscious.  The more I watch the film (I’ve seen it at least 20 times from beginning to end) the one predominant trait that stands out is the fact that’s it’s not really a boxing or sports picture at all.  Rather, RAGING BULL is a textbook investigation into the deepest and most penetrating aspects of obsession, perverted and baseless paranoia, incessant jealousy, and sexual inadequacy and insecurity.  For a film that does contain some truly ingenious and brutal boxing scenes (the finest ever committed to celluloid), RAGING BULL never feels committed to investing into boxing strategy or what it takes to be a champ like, say, the ROCKY films do.  Scorsese’s film is more preoccupied by the psychological drives of its main character.  For Jake La Motta, going into the ring is not an uplifting event that will lead to riches, fame, and respect; rather, fighting is a cathartic release of all of his frustrations and energies that stem from his own personal demons.  Sports films rarely are as psychoanalytic with their athletes as RAGING BULL is. 

The character of La Motta is, ostensibly, a pitiful and tragic figure that becomes a terrible victim of his own preventable foibles.  He, much like Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s earlier film TAXI DRIVER, is one who’s own sexual proclivities lead to damaging consequences.  Both La Motta and Bickle are driven by their own seemingly innate abilities to completely fail at neither relating to nor understanding women.  Bickle lacked even a modestly grounded perception on the opposite sex, so much that, in one awkward and pathetic moment in TAXI DRIVER, he takes his beautiful date to a porn film and is subsequently shocked when he finds out that she does not like those types of films.  Later, he becomes so sexually starved and dissatisfied that he channels his own inadequacies into plotting the assassination of a Presidential candidate that the women is working for. 

La Motta works, dramatically, much like Bickle, but this time with a much more focused amount of time spent on his jealousy.  Jake occupies the film paralyzed by fear, anxiety, doubt, suspicion, distrust, contempt and vilification for his young wife, played in a career making performance by Moriarty.  There has rarely been a more contemptible male figure in cinema that has had such an enormous lack of respect, love, or trust for his love that La Motta.  In other substandard sports pictures, the fuel that runs the athlete’s engine is the sport itself.  In RAGING BULL, the fuel is La Motta’s fanatical protectiveness and jealousy of his wife, which spills over into so many other tangents of his life, both in an out of the ring.  La Motta’s acute paranoia could have ties to his initial meeting of the beautiful Vickie.  She was a 15-year-old goddess, far removed from the fragile marriage that La Motta was already involved in.  Scorsese films this meeting in a glamorized fashion, perhaps heightening La Motta’s own perception of this girl as being the spirit that she might have not been.   La Motta is completely mesmerized by this striking figure, who has that sort of super cool detachment and subtle sexuality that appeals to him.  She seems to be a woman much older that her years, and it’s a real testament to the work of Moriarty who completely convinces us of the scope of her performance.  She plays the character as a confident young girl and later into a battered and abused wife so effortlessly. 

The two get married, but Jake’s growing ambivalence to her reaches deplorable levels.  Okay, Vickie is clearly not a saintly figure in the film (she hangs around with local mob figures when she should be with friends of her own age and has a subtle way of teasing Jake into near submission with her beauty), but there is never a direct moment in the film that definitively demonstrates her to be an adulterer, but that does not matter to Jake.  He does not need proof, no matter how hard he tries to get it.  His suspicions along warrant his hatred and jealously, more than enough to beat Vickie, oftentimes very maliciously.  He further channels his jealous rage into his fights.  In one chilling moment of crazed determination and appalling violence, Jake butchers and batters an opponent in the ring, not because he has to in order to win the match.  He does it in spite of his wife, who made the mistake of ever so subtly describing the opponent as being “good-looking”. 

The other relationship, outside of the one between wife and husband, is that of brother-to-brother, in this case Jake and his younger sibling Joey.  Casting Pesci proved to be a lucking one, as his only other screen credits included a B-grade TV film about mobsters and that he alone considered quitting acting altogether.  Pesci’s work as Joey remains his finest work, and he and DeNrio have such an effortless sense of timing and camaraderie that they illicit the type of chemistry that other talent takes years to perfect.  Joey may not be Jake’s physical match, but he most certainly is his verbal one, and his level of fearlessness in his emotional battles reveals an inner strength to him, especially considering that Jake could take him apart at any time.  Some of their moments together are masterpieces of simple and direct acting and reacting.  Consider one infamous scene where the two are in a living room and Jake slowly tries to coax information out of his brother about the possible infidelities of his wife.  Just watch how they play off one another.  Jake calmly, like a caged animal waiting to explode, persistently circles Joey with accusation after accusation while Joey endlessly recoils and recants, until he makes one subliminal slip.  It’s one of cinema’s great moments of suspicion and paranoia.   

Then, of course, there are the boxing scenes themselves, and despite the fact that they only occupy nine minutes of screen time, it took Scorsese over ten weeks to shoot them.  This might be the very first boxing film that I recall seeing that did not put the sport up on a pedestal to be revered.  Scorsese’s view of boxing is much more primal and ferocious, showing it for the blood-drenched and meaningless gladiatorial contest that it is.  His visual technique is amazing in its execution, which uses as much visual and auditory film magic as any of the works of George Lucas.   The soundtrack is incredible in the way if ever so intricately combines actual crowd noises with that own wild animals, like elephants and tigers.  All of this with those never-ending and pulse-pouding sights and sounds of flash bulbs going off makes for a boxing match that we feel.  This is also combined with Scorsese’s uncompromising eye to the barbaric gore and blood that makes up the fights.  Some have commented that the boxing in RAGING BULL is not realistic, but these people miss the point altogether.  The boxing in the film is kind of like one eerie surrealistic/expressionist painting that goes for an emotional and visceral impact and not for complete verisimilitude.  Scorsese breaks down the fights into dozens of shots that contains editing as frantic and manic as the shower scene in PSYCHO.   

One particular fight with Sugar Ray Robinson (La Motta’s greatest opponent) may be the best action scene of all time.  I have never seen such a feverous amalgamation of lighting fast editing, sound effects, and visual slight of hand as I did in this scene.  Punishing blows hurtle by at enormous speed, make contact with inhuman impact, and Scorsese often shoots them with quick edits, tight close ups, masterful use of slow motion and fast pans, not to mention the fact that he even will go to the trouble of filming in elongated rings not for realism, but for the effect of endless claustrophobia.  Some shots have such a scary sense of foreboding.  Outside of the fights, Scorsese films some moments with absolute confidence and beauty, as with one long steady cam shot that starts, in one unbroken take, with Jake and company in their locker room and subsequently shows them leaving it, down the hallways and into the stadium filled with spectators and finally the camera rises into the air to reveal the scope of the ring and arena.  It’s as powerfully realized of a shot as any  I have ever seen.   

Scorsese does not just have an intrinsic eye for visual detail for the fights alone.  Another memorable trait to his film is his use of slow motion in the quieter, more character oriented moments.  No one has ever used slow motion as well as Scorsese, and I have yet to see a film that is able to, visually, suggest human emotion like RAGING BULL does.  Oftentimes, the camera is subjective, from Jake’s perspective, and catches either long glances at Vickie from afar as well as quick, smaller shots of things like hands touching her shoulder or a small, innocuous kiss on the cheek.  The technique reveals further meaning to Jake as a character – the slow motion gives more credence to his escalating paranoid state. 

No mention of RAGING BULL would be complete without some regard of the work of DeNiro, who does not just perform the role of La Motta, but inhabits the man.  DeNiro actually trained and lived with the real La Motta and dissected the man down to the most minute of details.  His “method” of preparing for the role is now that of legend.  He learned to box so well and chiseled his body into such perfect fighting condition that La Motta himself claimed that DeNiro was, in fact, good enough to be a real fighter.  In actuality, DeNiro entered three local Brooklyn boxing matches as a test and won all but one of them.  Yet, the most memorable aspect of his performance is his unbelievable transformation into the middle aged La Motta who settled down into retirement in the 1950’s.  Refusing to wear prosthetics, DeNiro and company shut the production down for three months while he gained an astonishing 60 pounds to play La Motta as a pudgy and out of shape bum.    

It’s so painfully easy for modern audiences to take for granted the crazy amount of commitment that DeNiro put into his character and transformation.  Yes, many modern actors have done the same.  Vincent D’Onofrio gained 70 pounds for his role in FULL METAL JACKET.  Tom Hanks lost 30 pounds to play an AIDS victim in PHILADELPHIA.  Recently, Charlize Theron gained 40 pounds to play a serial killer in MONSTER and Christian Bale, most amazingly, lost a third of his body weight for his role in THE MACHINIST and then later gained 100 pounds of muscle back to play the Caped Crusader in the yet to be released BATMAN BEGINS.  Yes, this type of dedication is commonplace today, but it’s important to see DeNiro’s work in context.  Whereas actors go completely out of their way for roles now, it was completely unheard of during the filming of RAGING BULL, where his extremist method acting amazed and shocked viewers.  Yet, I don’t think he won the Oscar because of the weight gain.  He won because of his performance, and you won’t see better acting than in a final moment in a Miami jail cell where, down on his luck, Jake  viciously slams his fists and head into the concrete wall in a fit of personal despair.  Their has never been a more stirring, moving, and tragic moment of pity and complete self-despair and destruction.  I am nearly always reduced to tears during this scene, not because I feel sympathetic for the man, but because I pity how terribly his self-destructive behavior has reduced him to. 

RAGING BULL is one of the great stirring works of the cinema, as heart-wrenching as it is violent, as touching as it is vile and cruel, as poignant as it is painful.  It achieves what so many other films about sports or athletes don’t – it’s overwhelming more interested in character and not the thrill of the sport itself.  The real genius of the work is how it allows us to understand so impeccably the figure of Jake La Motta and, incredibly, allows us to maintain a level of sympathy for him.  We don’t feel pity for him out his actions or damaging ways he hurts others, but moreover in the ways his behavior ultimately destroys himself.  For that, RAGING BULL remains one of the cinema’s great films of inner despair, inadequacy and self-disillusionment.  From the opening moments of the lone figure in the ring matched with the hauntingly beautiful and sad music of composer Pietro Mascagnia to the final passages of ultimate hopelessness and desolation, RAGING BULL is a film that pulls few punches.   Like CITIZEN KANE, RAGING BULL taught me what the cinema could be.


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