This is not my favorite Martin Scorsese film.
I feel like I have to make that clear from the start because, for many people, this is their favorite Scorsese film. Though it may have gotten mixed reviews when it was first released, it is now regularly described as being the high point of Scorsese’s fabled collaboration with Robert De Niro. This was also the first film that Scorsese made with not only Joe Pesci but at also Frank Vincent as well. (In fact, the whole scene in Goodfellas where Pesci and De Niro nearly stomp Vincent to death is a bit of an homage to a scene in Raging Bull. Of course, Vincent got his revenge on Pesci in Casino.) This film earned Martin Scorsese his first Oscar nomination for best director and it’s regularly cited as being one of the greatest film ever made.
Even more importantly, 1980’s Raging Bull has been described — by none other than the director himself — as the film that saved Martin Scorsese’s life. Like a lot of his contemporaries, Scorsese got hooked on cocaine during the 70s. He even nearly died of an overdose. De Niro, who has been on Scorsese to direct Raging Bull for years, visited him in the hospital, brought him the script, told him to clean up his act, and make the film. When Scorsese started to work on the film, he assumed it would be his last. Whether Scorsese thought he would be dead or if he just thought he’d retire, I’m not sure. Still, if Raging Bull had not rejuvenated Scorsese’s love of cinema, he wouldn’t have subsequently directed some of the greatest films ever made. So, regardless of anything else, we have to be thankful that De Niro kept pushing Scorsese to direct Raging Bull.
The film itself is a biopic of Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), a brutal boxer who destroys opponents in the ring while destroying everyone who loves him outside of the ring. He’s the type of guy who takes joy in destroying one opponent’s face just because his wife, Vicki (Cathy Moriarty), said that the guy was handsome. When he’s forced to take a dive in order to win a title shot, he sobs in the locker room and it’s as close to being sympathetic as Jake gets. The rest of the movie, he spends his time terrorizing his wife and taking out his frustrations on his loyal brother, Joey (Joe Pesci).
Most boxing films tend to present boxers as being lovable lugs, guys who might not be too smart but who have found the one thing that they’re good at. (Think of the pre-Creed Rocky films.) In Raging Bull, there’s nothing lovable about Jake. He’s an animal, an angry man who fights because that’ the only way that he knows how to relate to the world. He’s the type of guy who spends all of his time looking for an excuse to get mad and throw a punch. The most dangerous thing you can do is make a joke in the presence of Jake LaMotta because, as portrayed in this film, he’s such an idiot that his reaction will always be to see it as a provocation. From beginning to end, he’s a loathsome figure but the young De Niro was such a charismatic actor that you keep watching because — much like Vicki — you keep hoping that you’ll see some glimmer of humanity and some chance of redemption.
Reportedly, Scorsese and De Niro feel that the end of Raging Bull does provide Jake with some redemption. Having lost everyone that ever loved him, an overweight Jake runs a sleazy nightclub and makes a fool of himself reciting dramatic monologues. The production actually shut down so that De Niro could overeat and gain all the extra weight and it is shocking to see him go from being a handsome, athletic man to a fat slob whose shirt can’t even cover his belly. No longer a boxer, Jake is now a faded D-list celebrity. Now that he can’t fight and he can’t make money for the mob and the gamblers, no one cares about him. That’s unfortunate for Jake but I have to say that I’ve never seen much redemption in Jake’s fate. If anything, I was just happy that Vicki finally got away from him.
Raging Bull is a film that’s easier to admire than to actually like. It’s impossible not to appreciate the black-and-white cinematography or the performances of De Niro, Pesci, and Cathy Moriarty. As directed by Scorsese, the boxing scenes are horrifying brutal, to the extent that you find yourself wondering how anyone could enjoy the sport. (When a spray of Jake’s blood hits the people in the first row, you can’t help but think that they’re all getting what they deserved.) That said, the film’s never been a favorite of mine because, as well done as it is, Jake LaMotta never seems like he’s worth spending two hours with.
Obviously, a lot of people disagree with me on that. Raging Bull received 8 Oscar nominations. Robert De Niro won Best Actor. Raging Bull, itself, lost Best Picture to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.