I can offer no excuse for having never seen Raging Bull until now. Like the rest of the world, I consider myself a fan of Martin Scorsese's movies, not to mention a fan of movies in general, and Raging Bull is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time. (Just this week, the AFI declared it the greatest sports movie, edging out Rocky.) Throw your best jab at any list of unmissable films, and it'll probably be right there near the top.
And it's been sitting on my shelf—along with lots of other unwatched DVDs—for at least a couple of years. I bought it at Target for six bucks, assuming that'd be a pretty safe investment based on the movie's reputation. And while it'd be fun to write a thousand words trying to take Raging Bull down a peg or two, it'd also be pretty pointless and baiting. I'm with the herd—Raging Bull is a classic.
I was happy to have known very little going in—only that it was a true story about boxer Jake LaMotta, and that Robert De Niro delivers a Marlon Brando speech ("I could've been a contender") from On The Waterfront. (Which I also haven't seen!) I feel like, beyond that, Raging Bull (which came out in 1980) hasn't really become the sort of cultural touchstone that it might've: It doesn't have the broad appeal of Rocky, which came out four years earlier, or the quotability of more popcorn-friendly Scorsese flicks like Goodfellas. In fact, for a movie about explosive violence, jealousy, and anger, it's often remarkably restrained and subdued. (Until those scenes that it's not.)
The beautiful, spare title sequence runs in slow motion, with De Niro stalking a ring alone, with gray shadows and smoke around him, throwing punches at no one. It's a striking image of a man alone, which De Niro remains throughout the movie—driving those closest to him away. Then, all of a sudden, it's 1964, and De Niro is fat and pathetic: He's punch-drunk, practicing his stand-up comedy routine in front of a dressing-room mirror. Which reminds me of the other thing that everybody seems to know about Raging Bull—that De Niro gained 60 pounds during a three-month break from filming in order to portray the chunky LaMotta in his declining years.
Just as quickly, it's into the film's first of many fight scenes, which are incredibly shot and edited. Rarely does the camera move more than a few feet from the fighters, and both the angles and especially the sound are nerve-wracking. Constant flashbulbs crackle, their sound effects supposedly made by breaking glass. It's intense—and not nearly as brutal as the fights that will happen later, both in the ring and out of it. But the fight scenes are never fun or invigorating; they're brutal. We meet Joe Pesci, playing La Motta's brother/manager/cornerman Joey—and the same character he'll be playing for the next 25 years, essentially. Which isn't to knock it—it works perfectly here.
It's established early on that De Niro is ugly, mean, and unlikable—and rarely does Scorsese allow you to sympathize with him. He's bull-headed at every turn. He's suspicious, jealous, and generally unpleasant—but with a charm that bubbles up just enough (and a knack for apologizing). His homelife isn't spared, either. Check out how he treats his wife in one of the movie's first scenes. He knows a thing or two about cooking a steak. (And De Niro has that Bronx thing down, well before it became a cliché.)
Before long, De Niro's eye is caught by 15-year-old Vickie (played by Cathy Moriarty), who's already wise beyond her years. She's hanging out by the pool with the mobsters—friends of Jake's brother, but not his—and teasing everybody. De Niro asks Pesci if he's had sex with her, and in one of the movie's real-life/real-funny moments, asks Pesci not to swear so much. (Which they both follow with dozens of "fucks," of course.) "You're a married man, it's all over," says Pesci. Not so fast.
For a long stretch, Raging Bull doesn't really rage at all. De Niro courts the young girl, eventually winning her over. He has moments of sweetness—but not too sweet. After a fight, he tells her, "Touch my boo-boos." (Seconds later, it's "take off your panties," and then De Niro pours ice-water on his dick.) A really effective montage (and I'm not a fan of zee montage in general) follows, with home-movie-styled scenes of their marriage (we never see the divorce from his current wife) and life together. The happy moments are essentially fast-forwarded through, and then it's back to the grim reality of being a prizefighter and a family man. When Moriarty mentions that an upcoming opponent is good looking, De Niro freaks out, and punishes the other fighter for something he couldn't have known about. "He ain't pretty no more."
But as his career continues to skyrocket, De Niro gets lonelier and uglier. He's not having sex (or even going out with) his beautiful young wife, so she heads off to hang out with mobsters—specifically Frank Vincent (a.k.a. Phil Leotardo from The Sopranos), who De Niro has always been suspicious of. Pesci, knowing what De Niro would do if he saw the two even having a drink together, beats the living shit out of Vincent. (It's something Pesci would be known for in Scorsese's later films, but he started it here.) Eventually, though, De Niro faces the fact that—no matter how good a boxer he is—he won't get a title fight without making a deal with the mobsters he loathes. It's the one instance in the movie where De Niro does something he doesn't want to do—loses his raging bull persona—and agrees to fix a fight in order to get a later title shot. It hurts him more than he imagined it would, and De Niro gives one of many amazing performances in which he realizes he's in possession of emotions other than anger.
Two years later, De Niro finally gets his title shot—in real life, LaMotta not only had to throw the fight, but also pay the mob 20 grand—and absolutely destroys Marcel Cerdan. And even though he's the champ, he's at an unbelievable low. (It's probably a good time to add that Scorsese was half-dead from coke before making Raging Bull, and he credits the film and De Niro for pulling him up from rock bottom.) So it's 1950, Jake is the champ, and he still treats his two closest allies—wife and brother—like enemies constantly conspiring against him. When Pesci kisses Moriarty hello, De Niro boils over.
Moriarty, takes the brunt of the abuse, as happens so often to the female leads in Scorsese's movies—and yet she takes De Niro back yet again. In a masterful scene, he follows her around—her face visibly bruised—while she packs her things, convincing her to stay. And then, finally, we see De Niro get his physical comeuppance. LaMotta fought Sugar Ray Robinson six times, and the final match—as portrayed by Scorsese—offers a bloody pinnacle. His face smashed to a pulp, De Niro never goes down, and he takes that as a victory.
After his defeat, De Niro's LaMotta essentially retires, replaced in the film by fat De Niro in a 30-minute post-script that finds him repeatedly fucking up, regretting it, then fucking up again. He's the perfect actor to play such an imperfect person, and though the film's final scene—in which he practices his Brando impersonation in a mirror (the scene was paid tribute in Boogie Nights, too)—is pretty breathtaking, I'll leave that a surprise, and leave you with De Niro locked in a cell, once again realizing that he's not the man he thought he was. It's gorgeous, horrifying, and masterfully executed—as is the whole movie.