It was surprising to notice that unlike the traditional boxing films, Raging Bull doesn’t have a single sequence where in the fighting strategies of the boxer is discussed neither is there a grasshopper speech from the coach or anyone else for that matter to charge the fighter. Even the training regime of the man which is an inseparable part of any Boxing film is ignored to a great extent. On the contrary the boxing appears as primarily a backdrop to the extremely volatile and emotionally charged personal memoirs of a man whose nature was as much his aid in achieving unprecedented success as it was instrumental in his ultimate downfall. Raging Bull is an extremely personal tale of Jake La Motta that holds testimony to his life and times of which Boxing was a part. This film is not about the making of a champ or downfall of a champ but more of a chronicle of the “hows” and “whys” of Jake La Motta’s life.
La Motta played by Robert De Niro is a middleweight who is trying to make his way through the ranks and have a crack at the title of the middleweight champion of the world. He is constantly hassled(because of his impulsive nature) by his wife and his brother Joey(Joe Pesci) who is also his manager keeps telling him that he need to settle matters at his home front as without peace and a life it will be difficult for him to nurture himself from the title. Jake meets the vivacious Vicky (Cathy Moriarty) and falls in love with her. His marriage comes to an end but his career sees and upward spiral. Vicky is just the inspiration he needed and his life changes for good. The Title shot seems within range and Jake decides to further complicate his life and willfully marries Vicky.
Post his marriage, the same old story starts repeating as Jake’s insufferable temperament and his uncalled for insecurities with Vicky has its effects not only on their relationship but also on Jake’s exploits in the boxing ring. When Vicky calls a boxer good looking, Jake wrecks his face just to prove a point. Once he is done he looks squarely at his wife and she gets the point. After a lot of hassle and heart aches La Motta finally gets a shot at the title and wins in great style. But that’s doesn’t affect his insecurities one bit as this time he goes to the extent of doubting his brother Joey to have had a relationship with his wife and goes to the extent of beating him up in his own home. Time passes by and he ages into a beefy old man who still has the desire to flirt with teenagers, a habit which gets him into trouble real fast. The film ends with La Motta prepping himself backstage before what seems to be a stand up act and then throwing some punches as if he was warming up for a bout.
Raging Bull proved to be a career saving film for Scorsese who nearly dies of a drug overdose and when he recovered, he agreed to do the film just to keep the word of De Niro who was repeatedly requesting him to do the film. De Niro had read the biography of La Motta and was mighty impressed by the character. However, Scorsese wasn’t a boxing fan and so didn’t believe in the film to start with but gradually found his footing and the film went ton to be a benchmark in his career. The film also went through multiple screenplay re-writes with Mardik Martin writing the first draft which was later worked on by Paul Schrader. Scorsese and De Niro also worked on the script for some weeks before the film got into shoots.
However the finished product leaves nothing to complain. The film never feels stretched or under done. The amount of time given to character development is just enough as the film cuts back and forth between La Motta’s personal life and the expression of it on the ring. One can actually see a connect between the two which only goes on to shape the film. The film also plays to the viewer’s fancy using some sensational scenes. Take for instance the scene where Jake is trying to repair his TV with Joey when Vicky walks in and kisses Joey in the mouth. This is the beginning of a major hassle which culminates in Jake walking up to Joey’s house and knocking him down. This is also the end of his association with his brother. Another scene which speaks volumes is the one towards the end where Jake is put in jail and while in solitary he punches the wall expressing his angst. There are many more such scene which the director dared to put in and it worked out to the “t”. Scorsese worked with the editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, to achieve a final cut of the film. Their main decision was to abandon Schrader’s idea of La Motta’s nightclub act interleaving with the flashback of his youth and instead they just followed along the lines of a single flashback where only scenes of La Motta practicing his stand-up would be left bookending the film. The film won one of its Oscars for editing.
After Taxi Driver, this was another role which really cemented De Niro’s place in Hollywood. He is spellbinding as the disgruntled boxer with his out of the world sexual jealousies, obnoxious eating habits and a raging temperament. His act won him an Oscar. Joe Pesci was brilliant as Joey and this was to be the start of a long association between him and De Niro as they would be seen together in such unforgettable films like Goodfellas, Once Upon A Time In America and Casino. Cathy Moriarty not only looks beautiful but pulls her weight in terms of her performance as well. She doesn’t remain restricted or under the shadow of the powerhouse performances but comes to her won whenever the situation demands it.
Raging Bull is a game changer. It is a film which was way ahead of its time but was neither conscious nor wary of that very fact. Scorsese plays out his cards in the manner that he deems right and in doing so gives us a sweeping epic that makes us fall in love with its simplicity and power. This one will figure in every list of films that must be watched. One of the great films of our times.