A tour de force from Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci.
Director Martin Scorsese’s sports biographical drama Raging Bull (1980) is a fearsome picture from Scorsese about an unlikable man named Jake LaMotta, who went from legit boxing legend to pathetic comedy stand-up doing cringe-inducing jokes in little nightclubs. Scorsese gives you the man’s home life flux and boxing career highlights with a visceral, dreamy directorial style all his own. No one directs like Scorsese and Raging Bull is some of his finest and sharpest filmmaking.
Writers Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin allow you into the troubled mind of a hopeful boxer with a cruel punching method of wearing down his opponents with vicious hits, while he himself gets clobbered mercilessly. Raging Bull is not about the boxing matches, but about how long they went on and with what brutality this bloodsport contains, much like Jake LaMotta’s own life of bullying and violence. Raging Bull is all about Jake LaMotta’s fiercely combative personality that ruins his life rather than his cruel boxing style. Meanwhile, composer Pietro Mascagni delivers only beauty with his entrancing symphonic score that is romantic, epic, and sincere. Mascagni’s melodies soar above all the blood and bruises, adding an elegance to Scorsese’s Raging Bull.
Scorsese’s direction is impeccable with a stellar creativity in filming each boxing sequence like it’s a magic show or something. Unique angles, panning shots, and long held close-ups ensures Raging Bull stays with you with a gorgeous black and white aesthetic that still shows all the sweat and blood. Michael Chapman’s cinematography has all these wonderful shots from the zoom out on Sugar Ray Chapman surrounded by smoke in an ethereal first person shot from Jake’s perspective to Vicki splashing her feet in a local pool to show her underage youth and playful personality.
Thelma Schoonmaker’s first collaboration with Martin Scorsese starts with Raging Bull and her cuts are so sharp and entertaining. From Jake needing a punch in the face to Thelma cutting to him getting beaten in a boxing match and so forth with her effortlessly clever cuts to her steady pacing that keeps Raging Bull’s 129 rush by like a knockout punch!
Scorsese sympathizes with this lumbering brute and all his inner turmoil, constant doubt, increasing paranoia, endless jealousy, brutal violence, and cruel domestic abuse with a fair and balanced direction for Raging Bull. You see Jake LaMotta’s fearsome rage in every word, glare, and punch of Robert De Niro’s leading role. De Niro captures Jake LaMotta’s flurry of swift punishing punches, brutal manner, distrusting nature, disgusting sexism, commanding gravitas, cringe humor, and fearful paranoia all with ease. He’s easy to hate and difficult to understand, but Scorsese lets you witness LaMotta’s boxing glory days to his embarrassing low moments in one of Scorsese’s greatest pictures: Raging Bull.
Joe Pesci steals the show as Joey LaMotta, Jake’s brother and trainer, who manages to push his brother to stardom and success, all while dealing with Jake’s incessant temper tantrums and vicious assaults. I love seeing Pesci go from quiet and patient to bursting with violence and righteous indignation at Jake’s mean taunts and shocking violence. I appreciate how Pesci is subtle as portraying Joey’s frustrations with Jake’s rage with his incredulous faces and aghast expressions.
Pesci is fascinating to watch throughout Raging Bull as Joey starts out empathetic and measured with his reassurations and pep talks to De Niro’s Jake LaMotta, but you see Pesci’s Joey cheating on his wife and belittling her just like how Jake treats his poor wife Vicki LaMotta as beautifully portrayed by Cathy Moriarty. She is perfect as the flirty and forlorn Vicki as she must succumb to Jake’s every wish and order until she’s had enough. Moriarty plays each moment with a knowing that lets you know Vicki understands every jealous question and hurtful comment made by Jake cuts deeply.
Frank Vincent is great as the two-faced goon Salvy with his compliments to Jake’s face, then insults behind his back to all his friends. Nicholas Colasanto is excellent as the Godfather type mafia boss Tommy Como with his boxing demands and ever present presence in Jake’s life and career. Theresa Saldana is gorgeous as Joey’s wife Lenore. You feel so sorry for her just like Cathy Moriarty’s Vicki as she is mistreated horribly by these wretched men.
John Turturro cameos as a man at the same club table as Salvy and Tommy early in his acting career. Martin Scorsese’s father Charles Scorsese cameos as Charlie when Tommy visits Jake in his apartment. Martin Scorsese himself has a cameo as a club stagehand later on in Raging Bull. Johnny Barnes is captivating as Sugar Ray Robinson opposite Robert De Niro’s barrelling Jake LaMotta. Michael Westmore and Mike Maggi’s make-up transforms De Niro into Jake LaMotta with a broader nose, torn eye gashes, beat up marks, and fat additions to capture LaMotta’s weight gains and losses throughout the years. Richard Bruno, Marilyn Putnam, Robert Iannacconne, and Andrea E. Weaver’s costumes fit the 1940’s and 1950’s eras from the boxing uniforms to the nightlife scene’s tight lavish dresses and slick suits.
In all, Raging Bull is a rush of blood to the head like one of Jake LaMotta’s legendary boxing bouts. Martin Scorsese at his peak technical prowess with powerful acting all over Raging Bull.