Shot in stark black and white, Raging Bull was Martin Scorsese masterpiece as he was reborn into the film industry. The story is that of real life boxer Jake La Matta. It begins as he starts his professional boxing career and we watch him rise and fall both in and out of the ring.
Raging Bull is a boxing movie, but it’s nothing like Rocky. It’s a sports movie, but nothing kids should see. Jake isn’t a hero, you don’t even like him unless he’s punching someone. He’s completely self absorbed, he expects his wife to sit at home for him while he’s training all day and out drinking all night. His brother and manager, Joey, isn’t much help, but can see the slope Jake is heading towards. Like all fighters, he’s never satisfied, but he takes it to self destructive points. He’s always suspicious of his wife cheating and his brother’s intentions. In most of the family scenes I was just waiting for Jake to explode and finally punch his wife’s head through the wall. He’s a dangerous ticking bomb that’s better left in the ring.
And that’s where some of the best parts of Raging Bull are. The boxing ring itself seems to be in a mystical place, like a bright island in a dark ocean surrounded by people. There are no walls or ceiling, the hanging microphone seems to just float in the smoky air. Then the bell dings, the crowd cheers and fists are flashing at top speed. The editing is so quick and precise with out a single wasted frame, if you blink you might miss something.
It’s so violent too. Remember how shocking the shower scene from Psycho was? Scorcasee looked to that for inspiration during one particular boxing scene and the result is one of the most beautifully violent moments in film history. Flashbulbs and punches act as the knife, the ropes around the ring keep the boxer from escaping, the blood sprays and flows all down his face. In one dizzying swoop, the camera lets us sway and fall with the boxer. And like watching blood flow down the drain, we hear the crowd roar and see the rope dripping with blood.
Robert de Niro put his blood, sweat and gained sixty pounds for his Oscar winning role as Jake. Besides the physical toll in the brutal boxing scenes and working for months on getting fat, the portrayal of a violent man on the edge of complete combustion is astounding. De Niro makes us afraid of Jake, we’ve seen his power, the violence he’s capable of. He lets himself get pushed more and more and we’re just waiting for everything to snap. De Niro builds the tension perfectly so we’re able to enjoy the fall and take a sigh of relief.
If you can’t stand blood, violence or the F-word 114 times (yes, IMDB counted it for me), then Raging Bull is not for you. All others, I strongly encourage you to see a cinematic masterpiece. And pause it if you need to get up, otherwise you could be sitting on the can hearing, “Oh, your missing it! He just beat the shit outta him with a car door!”