- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
or those who think “Rocky” is the greatest boxing movie ever made: think again. True, the 1977 sports drama was a massive success at the box office, and it did walk away with the Oscar for Best Picture, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t even come close to Martin Scorsese’s brutal study of one man’s struggle with his own psychological and sexual complexities. A box office failure during its time, “Raging Bull” may not have made the same kind of coin that Sly’s feel-good boxing epic did, but its critical response was far greater. This is a movie that is not only considered the best picture of 1980 (even though it lost to Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People”), but has earned the honor of being hailed as the best movie of its decade.
Based on the autobiography by Jake LaMotta, the film tells the story of a violent man in a violent sport whose own paranoia sent him into a downward spiral of jealous rage. Despite being a successful middleweight boxer (nicknamed Raging Bull), LaMotta (Robert De Niro) spent most of the 1940s in a fiery rivalry with Sugar Ray Robinson, idly waiting for his title shot. When it finally came, however, LaMotta had all but destroyed his relationships with the people that helped him get there, including his manager brother, Joey (Joe Pesci), and his trophy wife, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), whom he had already begun seducing at the ripe age of 15.
Unrivaled in his dedication to the art of method acting (Marlon Brando excepted), De Niro delivers one of the finest performances of his career. Training with the real-life LaMotta in order to physically prepare for the role (which included participating in a few very real boxing matches), De Niro then put on 60 pounds to portray the older LaMotta after he retired from the sport to become a nightclub host. De Niro also gets wonderful support from both Pesci (playing the straight man, for once) and Moriarty (who doesn’t look a day under 30), but it’s his relationship with Scorsese that makes the biggest impact. Having previously worked together on “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver” and “New York, New York,” there’s no other cinematic team-up in Hollywood that has achieved quite as much as when these two guys collaborate on a project. Quite frankly, Martin Scorsese would be nothing without his Italian-American muse, and the same goes for De Niro, whose movie career was built on starring roles from the Scorsese catalog.
Filmed in black-and-white (a process that, amazingly, still doesn’t blur the violence of the boxing sequences), “Raging Bull” may not be Marty’s greatest film to date, but it’s certainly one of his best. In fact, if “Taxi Driver” is the film that first earned Scorsese serious recognition as a director, and “Goodfellas” is his masterpiece, then “Raging Bull” is certainly his most prolific. The director has adapted a beautiful story that doesn’t vilify his tragically flawed protagonist, but rather absolves him in a very Biblical way.
No matter how beaten up you might feel after watching the destructive path that Jake LaMotta’s life has taken, you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy, especially when the following quote appears just before the credits: “Speak the truth before God. / We know this fellow is a sinner. / Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know, / The man replied. / All I know is this: / Once I was blind and now I can see.” The same can be said of those who rave on and on about “Rocky” being the greatest boxing movie ever made, when they’ve never even seen “Raging Bull." Watch it, and you might just change your mind.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
When MGM celebrated the 25th anniversary of “Raging Bull” with a new Collector’s Edition DVD, they really went above and beyond the usual dressings of such an old film. Thankfully, all of that great bonus material has been preserved for the new Blu-ray edition, including three audio commentaries that really serve as a nice supplement to the film – especially because they’re all so different. Director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker discuss the more technical aspects of filming; producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff sit down with cast members to talk about the film’s legacy; and Jack LaMotta, nephew Jason Lutwig, and writers Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin offer a more personal look at the boxer’s life. Other extras include a four-part making-of documentary on everything from writing (“Before the Fight”) and fight choreography (“Inside the Ring”) to production (“Outside the Ring”) and music (“After the Fight”), a 28-minute behind-the-scenes featurette (“The Bronx Bull”), a shot-by-shot comparison of DeNiro and LaMotta in the ring, and newsreel footage of LaMotta defending his title.