Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is based on a book by fighter Jake LaMotta, who also acted as technical adviser – which is odd because that must mean that LaMotta approves of this sad, sleazy, humourless depiction of his cretinous life.
The story Scorsese tells in this interminable assault on the senses is not a story worth telling in the first place, but the way he tells it leaves LaMotta without the slightest shred of decency.
Boxing movies must have some kind of heroism, some slight shard of humanity, between knockouts to sustain interest. This one has nothing but noise and bloodshed.
Since fighters all end up the same way – on the scrap heap – the only thing that makes them remotely interesting is their souls. Without compassion, they remain big, dumb battering rams, and their fates have no tragic dimensions.
Every good boxing movie has a hero to root for.
The grim, one-dimensional picture Scorsese and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin paint of Jake LaMotta has no dramatic pulse, no structure, no suspense and no tragedy – It’s a bleak and nasty film, shot in stark black and white, with personal milestones that might give clues to the character behind the fists (marriages, births, family barbecues) related in silent colour home movies.
The rest of the time, all we get is a relentlessly despairing look at an arrogant, inarticulate punching bag from an Italian neighbourhood in the Bronx who lives a thoroughly loathsome life from the first frame to the last.
We’ve been in that neighbourhood before, in other Scorsese films, and we couldn’t wait to get out.
Amid the flying plates, filthy screaming curses, and Sinatra records, LaMotta leaves his wife for a pouting, peroxide blonde who is fifteen going on forty-five.
The soundtrack shrieks of bones crunching, blood spattering from ruptured eye sockets, and slow-motion violence that would make Sam Peckinpah throw up, and LaMotta emerges one of the most despicable characters ever revealed on film, despite Robert De Niro’s Oscar-winning performance.
Bashing Tony Janiro’s face in because his wife thought he was “cute,” throwing a fight to Billy Fox to please the mobsters, causing Boxing Commission scandals and investigations by the DA, slapping his wife around, treating women like chattel, ending up in jail, working in the end as a broken-down comic without family or friends in cheap strip joints . . . there is nothing to cheer about this man.
With cauliflower ears, a broken nose the size of a Coke bottle, Quasimodo face, and obesity bordering on the grotesque, Robert De Niro never elicits any sympathy, but he has an energy and magnetism worth watching. Cathy Moriarity, as his creepy wife, and Joe Pesci, as his equally crude brother Joey, are also memorable.
Cathy Moriarity, as his creepy wife, and Joe Pesci, as his equally crude brother Joey, are also memorable.
The film ends with De Niro, bloated, beer-bellied, porcine and disgustingly vulgar, doing Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” speech from On The Waterfront and you don’t know if you’re supposed to laugh or cry.
Robert De Niro went through extensive physical training in preparation for the film, working out every day with Sylvester Stallone’s trainer. Then he entered in three genuine Brooklyn boxing matches – and won two of them.
For the second part of the film – where De Niro plays old and fatter Jake La Motta – production stopped so the actor could gain the necessary weight. De Niro managed to pack on 60lbs (27 kg) of fat during a period of four months. He suffered high blood pressure problems and his feet hurt from the extra weight.
Raging Bull opened on 14 November 1980, and Kathleen Carroll in the New York Daily News struck the prevailing note when she called Jake “one of the most repugnant characters in the history of the movies,” and went on to criticise Scorsese because the movie “totally ignores [La Motta’s] reform school background, offering no explanation as to his anti-social behaviour.”
The movie bombed. Scorsese had made an anti-Rocky, and he would pay for it.
Robert De Niro
Jake La Motta
Robert De Niro
Vickie La Motta
Joey La Motta
Lori Anne Flax
Sugar Ray Robinson
Eddie Mustafa Muhammad
James V. Christy