“Give me a stage where this here bull can rage.”
Under normal circumstances and certainly under less skillful hands the story of Jake La Motta would not be one worth telling. His life is a story without heroes. It’s a life of abusive behavior and an almost unredeemable personality. The only way he was ever capable of expressing himself was in the boxing ring. Even there he was doomed to feel inadequate most of his life. Even as he was rising toward the middleweight championship of the world, he was obsessed by his own small hands and the realization that he was fated to never test himself against the world’s very best fighters. He alienated everyone around him. He was utterly and completely self-destructive, and you either left his sphere of influence or you let him drag you down in to his own dark abyss. Why in the world would anyone want to see, let alone make a film based on the life of Jake La Motta?
Robert De Niro was fascinated with the autobiography written by La Motta. He was known to carry a tattered earmarked copy of the paperback with him through several years and film projects. There was something about the man’s story that spoke to De Niro. He would admit that the tale wasn’t even terribly well written. But still it pulled at him until he finally convinced a reluctant Martin Scorsese to take on the project. Together they literally made something from nothing.
Whatever you might say or think of La Motta, give him credit for an unusual level of honesty and candor. He reveals aspects of his life that must have brought a tremendous amount of shame. He didn’t try to sugarcoat the rough spots. It was obvious that he didn’t write the book in order to get people to think better of him as a man. Perhaps it was that brutal honesty that so compelled De Niro into taking on the subject… and the man himself. Raging Bull is not a boxing movie, and while the success of Rocky just three years earlier was hugely responsible for getting the film made, this is not a feel-good underdog movie. There is no one really to cheer for here. There is nothing uplifting about Raging Bull at all. No, it’s a solid character study that runs counter to we expect. De Niro becomes a man we were not used to seeing in our movies up until this time. Today films like The Wrestler and Crazy Heart likely owe a tremendous debt to Raging Bull.
In order for a character study like this to work, you need a powerful performance from the character. Who could argue that when Robert De Niro puts himself into a part he doesn’t give it everything he has? You will never see an actor so completely cover himself with a character as much as De Niro does here. No matter how famous and well-known the actor is, he manages to lose himself completely in the role. The transformation is helped by his mid-production gain of 60 pounds to transform his own physicality into the later-life La Motta. Not only does he bury his personality inside of La Motta, but he physically transforms himself like no one has done before or since. The feat was probably a little dangerous to De Niro’s own health. The man surrounded himself with the mood of the troubled fighter. He literally became the bitter and quick to temper Jake La Motta. Every good performance can use all the help it can get to truly shine. That’s why it’s so wonderful to see this, the first of many collaborations with Joe Pesci. The two share one of the most remarkable on-screen rapports in the business. That chemistry would go on to serve them well in future films, but the foundation was laid here with Raging Bull. Playing La Motta’s teenage bride was newcomer Cathy Moriarity. Pesci himself recommended the girl to Scorsese and De Niro after seeing her at a local club. It is the complicated and always volatile relationship between these three that makes this film as compelling as it is.
The film is often criticized for its level of violence. But that’s really just another testament to these incredible performances. If you look at the film objectively, it’s not any more violent than hundreds of films you’ve seen. But you can credit two important elements for making this violence so memorable. The first goes back to the chemistry between these three actors. You will absolutely be moved by what you see. You will leave this film believing that you’ve actually witnessed incredible displays of domestic violence. It is absolutely real. Every look and every strike bears so much authenticity that you will be affected by what you’ve seen.
The second credit goes to the unique filming style that is a bit of a three-ring affair. There is Scorsese’s decision to get in the ring with the camera. This is the most intimate boxing film you’ve ever laid your eyes on. You are inches from the dramatic punches, and you’ll have to check yourself once or twice for blood splatter. Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman brought you film boxing like you’ve never seen before … or since. The second part of this trio is the magnificent sound design team. The insertion of animal noises and other odd accents makes this a unique experience, to say the least. There is also a wonderful use of silence to great effect throughout the film. Finally, there is a reason why editor Thelma Schoonmaker won one of only two Oscars the film received. Of course, it deserved more than that. This film has some of the most effective editing you’re ever going to see. Any film class on editing should make Raging Bull required viewing.
Raging Bull is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30-35 mbps. The film is in black & white, so color is not an issue here. Sharpness and contrast are what stand out. The image presentation is completely faithful to the stylish film that Scorsese created 30 years ago. The detail has never been better. When fists connect during the fight scenes, we can feel the power of each blow. The high-speed photography allows for tremendous detail. The image looks dated, and that’s intentional. But the style never gets in the way of telling the story. Contrast is superb on this transfer. Black levels are perfect. This all culminates in a beautiful image that retains the original grain. No DNR scrubbing to be found here. It’s as perfect a reproduction as is technologically possible with today’s equipment.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 delivers on so many levels. As I’ve already mentioned, the sound design here is one of the best in movie history. While the original didn’t have the benefit of this kind of surround technology, it is used with great care and respect. It is the sound design that adds such depth to the realism of the film. You will be immersed into this world. Dialog is hushed quite often. La Motta isn’t near as loud outside of the ring as inside. This can be a minor annoyance, but it is intended as a faithful representation of the man as interpreted by De Niro. You really have a hard time finding fault in that. Do you wanna tell him he’s wrong?
There are three informative Audio Commentaries. Unfortunately, no De Niro.
Unfortunately, the extras are in Standard Definition.
Cathy Moriarity On The Tonight Show: (6:42) The actress is still a bit shy and not used to her new stardom in this appearance with Johnny Carson from March 27th 1981.
Raging Bull Fight Night: (1:22:32) This full-length feature can be broken down into four parts. I used the handy play-all option. It’s more or less a narrative with various participants telling the story of how the film was made. We spend a ton of time in an editing room with Schoonmaker. Some real solid information to be discovered here.
The Bronx Bull: (27:54) More time with Schoonmaker as she takes you through the processes used to edit the film. La Motta himself has a few things to say.
DeNiro Vs. La Motta: (3:47) A comparison of the real fighter and De Niro.
La Motta Defends The Title: (1:00) A newsreel of the big title defense fight where he came back to win with just 13 seconds remaining in the fight.
There are films that everyone simply must see at least once in their lives. While it was mostly snubbed at the Oscars, it has long been heralded as one of the best films of the 1980’s. It’s not just enough to rent this one and view it once for the sake of the experience. There is so much to learn here about filmmaking and life that it warrants many continued viewings. This MGM 30th Anniversary release gives you the absolute best print possible for that experience. It belongs on every home video shelf. De Niro, Scorsese, Pesci and one of the best technical crews ever assembled? “Now that’s entertainment.”