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RAGING BULL
Special Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty
Director:  Martin Scorsese
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  129 Minutes
Release Date:  February 8, 2005

"I've done a lot of bad things, Joey...maybe it's coming back to me."

Film ***1/2

I first saw Raging Bull on HBO when I was very young, and I didn't much like it.  No, that's too kind...I was downright repulsed by the picture.  It seemed to revel in base brutality and celebrate a man who was one of the most disgusting characters I had ever seen...a brooding prize fighter whose insecurities inspired his violence, and who made anything and everyone around him a victim.

It was my first experience with a Martin Scorsese movie, and though I didn't really know it at the time, he was giving me one of my first real lessons of cinema...namely, that films don't always have to play safe by giving you characters that are good and likeable, or at least charming through their faults, in a story that sails smoothly toward happiness and redemption.  Or, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, a great movie isn't great because of what it's about, but because of how it's about it.

Raging Bull is frequently trumpeted as the best movie of the 1980s, and ironically both cemented Scorsese's position as one of America's greatest directors while beginning his longtime fruitless courtship with Oscar, who also never went home with Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick (as a director).  Being a black and white film (a stylistic choice, and also necessary to mute some of the bloodiness) with such an increasingly stark subject matter, however, Scorsese later recalled he believed he was making a picture no one would ever see.

Credit star Robert De Niro, who didn't get jilted by Oscar, for discovering the autobiography of middleweight champion Jake La Motta and finding in it a character he was driven to play.  His drive would eventually get Scorsese on board.  Not being a sports fan himself, Scorsese began to visualize the movie not as a boxing story, but a tale driven by sexual jealousy, fury, and brutality.

Our first glimpse of La Motta (De Niro) is shocking.  We're looking at a middle aged, overweight man, trying to practice some trite lines for a lame nightclub act.  Then, in a Michael Powell-esque touch, we are instantly transported back to La Motta at 23, doing what he did best in the ring.  Only Scorsese chooses to begin his story with his first ever professional loss.

The boxing scenes, which took ten weeks to shoot, are absolute masterpieces of bloodshed and unapologetic brawling.  Originally having no clue as to how to shoot such action in such a confined space (and probably not wanting to repeat what was done so successfully in Rocky), he carefully storyboarded the sequences and envisioned the editing precisely.  Suffice to say, boxing has never been captured so well or so starkly before or since.

Yet the real thrust of the movie comes from two driving relationships:  La Motta with his brother Joey (Oscar nominee Pesci), who manages him, and his second wife Vickie (Moriarty, another Oscar nominee), who, through no fault of her own, brings out his jealous rages.  Moriarty lights up the screen like a cross between Veronica Lake and Lana Turner, and though only 19 at the time, seemed to loom large with a world savviness that the awkward Jake never had.

Instead of taking comfort in the fact that she gave herself so freely to him, La Motta's warped mind kept convincing him she was just as easy with other men.  There's no evidence she ever cheated on him, but he needed none...his own burning suspicions were enough to merit frequent verbal and physical lashings.  In a scene that can only be compared to Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront, Jake confronts Joey while fixing a television set...accusing his own brother of taking advantage of his wife.

If Jake behaves like an ogre in life, he gets his punishment in the ring.  Though frequently victorious, he would sometimes just let his opponents wail on him as though it were penance for the misery he caused everyone else.  His bouts with the great Sugar Ray Robinson in the 40s are historic, but nothing compares to the image of the two in their final fight, where the defeated and bloodied beyond belief La Motta brags, "You never got me down."

None of this leads to what you could call a happy ending.  After retiring from the ring, Jake La Motta ballooned up (De Niro's real life weight gain for the role has become the stuff of legends), finally lost Vickie and his kids, lost contact with Joey, and ended up in jail over an incident with an underage girl in his nightclub.  When we see La Motta in solitary, screaming like a caged animal and pounding the concrete walls with his bare fists, we know he's gone about as far down the spiral as humanly possible.

Then, as a kind of quiet exclamation point, the movie turns what could have been typical Hollywood redemption into another failure for Jake.  He meets up with Joey and tries to hug and kiss him tenderly, while his brother never reciprocates.  The truth in life is that some wounds never heal...in fact, when La Motta penned his autobiography, he left Joey out of it completely.

It took a lot of courage for a filmmaker to go down such a dark road with no pretenses of light, and there's no question Martin Scorsese was the right man to do it.  He was willing to explore this brutal, self-destructive character called Jake La Motta, even if he could find no answers.  The film doesn't tidy everything up into a neat, palatable package like we've been spoiled to expect.  It's not eager to please and doesn't pander for our affinity.  It finds that dark side of humanity that's just shadowy enough to be stark and real...not romanticized like a crime story.

It's definitely one of the unique American movie entries of all time, and for that reason alone, deserves the praise and acclaim it continues to receive more than twenty years after the fact.

Video ***

High marks overall for this anamorphic presentation from MGM, which had a couple of hurdles to deal with:  one, this is a film from the 80s, the most consistently problematic decade for DVD preservation, and two, the film was constructed with a gritty, wet, dirty look in mind.  The black and white photography by Michael Chapman is expressive and distinctive.  Sometimes a bit of grain is unavoidable, but it lends to the overall effect.  Nicely done.

Audio ***

The soundtrack for this film is something else, and even more so with a new 5.1 mix.  The audio is filled with explosive fight scenes peppered with subliminal sounds of animals and glass shattering and such, and the surrounds and subwoofer pay off on them nicely.  Spoken words are always clean and clear as well.

Features ****

Disc One boasts three solid commentary tracks.  If you're interested in the making of the movie, you'll definitely want to listen to the first one, which features Martin Scorsese and his Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker.  If you want to know more about the subject matter, the third track has Jake La Motta himself along with his nephew, giving very candid information about all aspects of his life and career, both positive and negative.  In between is a group commentary led by cinematographer Michael Chapman, but also producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff and other cast and crew members.

Disc Two has a total of four new featurettes on the movie (or you could think of it as one big one split into quarters), which have new interviews with cast and crew and plenty of insights from how the project began to how it was eventually received.  The original “Bronx Bull” making-of documentary is included, as well as shot-by-shot comparisons of De Niro with La Motta.  Rounding out is an original La Motta newsreel and the trailer.

Summary:

Raging Bull defied a lot of movie conventions and became a cinematic classic, though it took some time for fans (including me) to learn to appreciate what it had to offer.  It proved Martin Scorsese was one of America's greatest directors; a title he's never faltered from over the many ensuing years.

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