An emotionally self-destructive boxer’s journey through life, as the violence and temper that leads him to the top in the ring, destroys his life outside it.
Year 2, Film #56
THE REVIEW: Martin Scorsese is back to direct another film, this time it’s the 1980 Best Picture nominee Raging Bull. This film, about famous boxer Jake LaMotta, isn’t really about boxing or fighting; it’s about Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) as a person, the way he felt, and how he used boxing as a way to channel his emotions. Many have praised Raging Bull and Roger Ebert even called it the best film of the 1980s. While I thought this biopic was well executed by Scorsese and his team, I didn’t find it quite as ambitious as others make it out to be.
Raging Bull is yet another film that shows just how important and influential great acting can be. One of the biggest draws to the film, and one of the reasons that keeps you watching, is just how well these characters interact with each other. All the main characters are family — Jake and his brother Joey LaMotta (Joe Pesci), and Jake’s wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) — and you can believe it. Everything they do, from they way they talk, the way they interact, and the way they look at each other, is filled with subtlety and familiarity that can only be found in family members or really best friends. When Joey responds to Jake saying, “No, I’m not gonna do that. That’s stupid, I’m not gonna do that,” (that’s paraphrased, there’s a few instances where Joey responds saying something like this) you can tell these two are brothers. There’s so much communication going on behind the words that are being said that solidifies the relationship for the viewer and also makes you care as much for these people.
As I said earlier, Raging Bull isn’t truly a boxing film. This isn’t like Rocky where the sport takes center stage and the entertainment value lies in the action. With Raging Bull, the entertainment value is found outside the arena. Even when Jake is inside the ring, his thoughts and actions are always driven by something outside of it. That something happens to be women. At times it can be love, others anger and hatred, but more often than not Jake is jealous. Early on Jake is introduced to the fifteen-year-old girl, Vickie, whom he then begins to date and eventually marry. As was probably the case with his first wife (who we only see for a few brief scenes in the very beginning), Jake’s relationship with Vickie starts off as one of love. Jake cares for her in a way that we don’t see anywhere else in the movie. He doesn’t even care as much for Joey, whom he loves very much, as much as he cares for Vickie when they first meet. And we see the results that has on Jake’s fighting. There’s a montage of both professional and personal lives that shows Jake winning every match, marrying Vickie, and having their first child. But this love and affection doesn’t last long.
Pretty soon, the love turns into jealousy and the resulting anger that comes from it. All Vickie does is say one simple, throwaway line where she describes one of Jake’s upcoming opponents as “pretty good-looking”. From here on out, Jake does nothing but worry and feel insecure about his relationship with Vickie. He no longer trusts her and is always assuming she’s cheating on him with other men, which she never does. But any little sign of affection, whether it be a simple hug or goodbye, Jake finds as unacceptable. He begins to devolve into the animal and the bum that he keeps saying he isn’t. And for a while, he’s able to use this anger and frustration to win fights. He disfigures the opponent that Vickie called “pretty good-looking” and beats others to bloody pulps.
But while all of this — the characters, the emotions that come out, the boxing — is great and entertaining, it isn’t quite phenomenal. It isn’t quite as revealing and transformational as it’s made out to be. The balance between the personal and professional lives is handled extremely well but it’s the depth that’s lacking. Whenever I watch a film like this that’s all about character development and trying to examine who someone is as a person (as we do here with Jake LaMotta), I want to feel the same way the characters do and be able to put myself in their point-of-view. With Raging Bull Scorsese and De Niro do a good job at showing us what Jake goes through, the changes he makes and the struggles he endures, but I never felt fully connected with Jake. There was never that moment where I could look at Jake’s face and instantly tell what was going on in his mind, I always had to do a bit of guessing. Had there been just a bit more depth, a moment or two where we truly see these characters, it could have made this film the wonder that others see it as.
Regardless, Raging Bull is still a fantastic film that was a pleasure to watch. Scorsese and his wonderful cast create a film that show not just the facade of famous boxer Jake LaMotta who refused to be knocked-down in the ring, but what drove him while he was there fighting. We get to see the emotions that arose through his relationships with his brother Joey and wife Vickie and the impact they truly had on him. De Niro, Pesci, and Moriarty act like they are from the same family in a very authentic way. And while the film may not have reached the level of intimacy that I would have liked, it is in no way a bad film. And especially having seen On the Waterfront just a few days ago, Jake’s ending monologue made the end much more impactful.
THE RATING: 4 out of 5