A marvel of a movie; a spot-on analysis of one man’s aggression and insecurity; an eternal cinematic treasure: Martin’s Scorsese’s 1980 black-and-white bio-pic of a middleweight boxing legend is stark, striking, and nothing short of brilliant. Raging Bull is by far the premium product of the Scorsese/De Niro tandem and one of the finest films ever made.
The film chronicles the rise and fall of Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), a middleweight boxing legend during the 1940s and ‘50s, whose bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes) put him at both the top and bottom of his game. Throughout the picture, LaMotta is depicted as a man of accessible rage and disheartening jealousy, and it is his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and brother Joey (Joe Pesci) who stir these emotions. The boxing ring merely serves as an arena for LaMotta to unleash his anger without remorse.
Scorsese’s choice to shoot Raging Bull in black-and-white (except for a few home-movie sequences) perfectly complements the gritty storyline. Scorsese’s decision to make his boxers’ blood look inky black versus bright red is alone a testament to his sensational style. His direction here is absolutely superb. In fact, the final bout between Sugar Ray and LaMotta, that closes with both the line “You never got me down Ray. You never got me down” and a shot of the blood soaked rope, is my favorite sequence by any director, in any film, in any genre. It is a crying shame that Scorsese did not win the Oscar for best director in 1980 and even worse that Raging Bull did not win Best Picture.
On the upside, De Niro did take home the gold for best actor. His performance is single-handedly the greatest male acting I have ever encountered. De Niro’s work here is near equivalent to a master course in theater. From his chiseled animalistic form in the ring, to his overweight pitiable figure who quotes Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront at the film’s close, De Niro is at his best and his performance promises to wow the dreariest of viewers.
In addition, Cathy Moriarty and Joe Pesci dish out phenomenal performances. Cathy, at age 19, pulls off Vickie as both a 15 year-old girl and an aging distressed wife, while Joe Pesci plays Joey with the same demeanor he later applies to his Academy Award winning role in Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
Finding faultless direction and flawless all-around acting occurring in concert is truly an unconditional indulgence. Raging Bull represents cinematic excellence; it is a heat-seeking missile of a movie. It is an unavoidable knockout that will eventually cross your path, and when it does, you will not only feel its impact, but you will also come to appreciate how utterly perfect and unmerciful movies can be. (**** out of ****)