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Raging Bull Review

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Raging Bull

Released: December 19, 1980
Running time: 2h 9m

Released in 1980, Raging Bull was based on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta, who took the same nickname in the ring. This is a signature Scorsese movie as it follows an obsessive, self-destructive character whose world crumbles despite his impressive talents. Scorsese expected this to be his final feature film and worked on it meticulously, but now Raging Bull is considered one of the greatest American movies of all time and of course Scorsese went on to produce a great deal more. Raging Bull stars Robert De Niro in another of his iconic Scorsese roles, for which he trained with LaMotta himself, later gaining 60 pounds to portray the boxer in retirement.

Raging Bull is another Scorsese film with a lot of violence, though in this case it’s largely in the ring, or in terms of LaMotta’s relationships. His boxing style, true to his nickname, was to go in hard and bully opponents with repeated heavy battering, while being able to take astonishing levels of punishment in return. De Niro portrays this force of nature well, with an intensity both inside and outside the ring. LaMotta’s decline is framed by his relationship with Vikki, played by Cathy Moriarty, who later becomes his wife. He is a man of low self-esteem who goes from coveting this idealised girl to being unable to relate to the woman he marries.

LaMotta is a man of simple, brutish expression who ranges from rage to fear to jealousy and back with frightening ease, skipping or failing to express the shades of grey between. He fights like a demon and earns great success, but makes repeated mistakes in both his professional and personal life, including entanglements with the Mafia (another Scorsese trademark) and his abusive treatment of his wife and brother. It’s hard to like this character as he sabotages his own life, yet we watch him with an astonished awe, touching on Scorsese’s documentarian tendencies. LaMotta will simply not go down, inside or outside of the ring. No matter how badly he’s beaten, or how much he invites disaster upon himself, he gets back up. With the movie being based on real life, his awful endurance is all the more captivating.

Scorsese and De Niro are paired perfectly for this movie, the former capitalising perfectly on De Niro’s attention-grabbing poise and dialogue. The movie begins with LaMotta at the end of his career, now a stand-up comedian, before recounting the tale of his downfall. When returning to that scene we are treated to the iconic moment of De Niro talking to himself, reminiscent of Taxi Driver.

Raging Bull is as much about sex as it is boxing, as the two are handled with much the same approach, or same set of emotional tools, by LaMotta. He battles away to achieve what he wants, then cannot keep it as he isn’t prepared for it. His destructive relationship is tragic and mirrors the downward spiral of his career. Scorsese takes pains to capture this and his shots are tailored to show LaMotta’s perspective; for example, he highlights shots of Vikki speaking with other men. There are many such simple, visual insights into his paranoia and lack of emotional reach which avoid the need for uncharacteristic vocal expression. Raging Bull is essentially the tale of a doomed man, one of Scorsese’s masterpieces of triumph and loss.