Classic Movie Thursdays: Raging Bull Review

So I watched Raging Bull…

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This was a movie that I’d long been looking to watch. Anything with Robert De Niro’s name on it deserves viewing, especially when it earned him an Oscar win. Plus this has been described as Martin Scorsese’s best film so there was no way I couldn’t see it.

Okay, basic plot: During the 1940’s middleweight boxer, Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro),  struggles to earn himself a shot at the middleweight championship. Jake’s aggressive fighting style and hardheadedness spill out from the ring, into his life often causing him to clash with his brother, Joey (Joe Pesci) and second wife, Vicki (Cathy Moriarty). Vicki experiences the brunt of Jake’s aggression as his insane jealousy and tendency to become violent puts strain on their marriage. As Jake’s career rises, the grueling abuse he endures in the ring soon grows second to the carnage of his personal life.

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I hate to badmouth a classic but I didn’t particularly enjoy watching this film. I think this had to do with my expectations going into the film. I was expecting a boxing film but, while Raging Bull is a good film, it is not a good boxing film or even a boxing film at all. The beauty of boxing films is seeing our hero literally battle their demons in the ring. Raging Bull, however, treats the boxing as an after-thought and never incorporates it as an essential element of the plot. I think this largely had to do with director, Martin Scorsese’s distaste for the sport. The boxing is never showcased as it should be and is relegated to a plot device that forms weak bridges between different plot points. So if you’re looking for a riveting boxing film, this one is not for you.

That being said, Raging Bull does have plenty to offer. As with all Scorsese pictures, this film is a beautiful examination of a flawed character. Jake LaMotta is a fighter and he doesn’t know any other way to fight – and, in fact, live – except to go in guns blazing. This leads to a character with great passion but a tendency to be rash and make mistakes that prove to be detrimental in the long run. His interactions with his brother and wife are wonderfully entertaining and it’s in these moments that the film truly shines. The explosive violence, the jealousy and hot-temper that were hallmarks of LaMotta make his personal life far more interesting than his career as a professional fighter.

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This film’s cast are absolutely brilliant and it’s no surprise that the three central figures – De Niro, Pesci and Moriarty – were all nominated for Academy Awards. They do a spectacular job bringing their individual characters to life and creating palpable and electric chemistry with each other. I have to single out De Niro’s performance. I’ve seen De Niro on quite a few TV chat shows and heard about his introverted, soft-spoken nature from cast mates. This makes the work he does all the more phenomenal. He dominates the screen in every scene he’s in and his physical commitment to the role is extraordinary. There is never a moment when you do not believe that he is LaMotta and all you can do is stand in awe of his craftmanship.

While I don’t think Scorsese did a fantastic job showcasing boxing with regards to the overall film, I have to commend him on the way he chose to shoot the boxing scenes. Films that featured boxing before this film all shot the boxing scenes from the perspective of the spectators while Scorsese decided it best to shoot boxing scenes from the perspective of the fighters. He insisted that the camera be placed within the ring so that the emotions of the fighters could be seen. This does add depth to the boxing scenes and while it’s a pretty standard element of boxing films nowadays, that choice by Scorsese was visionary at the time.

Scorsese also chose to shoot the film in black and white; this was apparently to distinguish it from other films of the time and in order to highlight the issue of fading colour film stock. The black and white aesthetic of the film adds a gravity to the overall feel of the movie. The film feels more purposeful and the black and white heightens the emotions of various scenes. Another gripe I had with the film is that its pacing is off and the film often drags and this makes its two-hour runtime feel like a lifetime.

Overall, Raging Bull is a fine film but not for the reasons I expected. This is not a boxing film but rather an intense drama about a flawed character trying to fight his way through life. The acting is superb and the majority of what Scorsese decides to do works wonderfully. It’s worth watching but does require some patience.

3.5 star

 

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2 thoughts on “Classic Movie Thursdays: Raging Bull Review

  1. You’re right. Anyone looking for an inspiring underdog story where some poor schlub rises to the championship need to look elsewhere. That’s a big reason why I love it as much as I do, recently naming it my #1 boxing movie of all time. LaMotta’s life, as depicted here, is nothing short of riveting and DeNiro is electrifying. For me, Goodfellas is Scorsese’s finest film, but this is only a hair behind.

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