A ferocious exploration of relationship and sporting drama in this classic movie. One made even better by three brilliant performances from the leading actors and a directing style that keeps ducking and diving to keep interest from falling on the ropes.
This boxing tale finds Jake LaMotta in the 60’s rehearsing a routine before cutting to the majority of the film in flashback where we see the Italian American in numerous bouts. He falls for a 15 year old at an open air swimming pool and they marry and have children, the home life of LaMotta becomes strained and his jealousy threatens to drive his wife, Vickie and his brother, Joey away from him.
The style first of all helps set a more gritty and realistic tone with the blacks, whites and greys making it look grounded. It’s not glossy like boxing isn’t and the lack of colour makes it feel more documentary-esque boosting the biopic atmosphere of this film. A neat touch comes with the home videos as Jake and Vickie get wed and move in together. The videos arrive with colour making it seem like a warm homely vibe to split up the montage of boxing rounds. The colour is some welcome invitation, a splash of something happy and desirable.
Martin Scorsese’s directing is suitably quick and snappy for fast paced, bouncy rounds in the ring. The camera zips and whips up or full circle to emphasise blows from the boxers. Then when it’s needed the film slows down to illustrate something tense or reflective. The slow track as the camera goes alongside the ring to rest upon a static shot of ropes dripping with blood is a case in point of this change in pace to provide dramatic effect. The cool vertigo moment as we see Sugar Ray square up to Jake and look at him before delivering a last punch in the 13th round helps make the opponent look more menacing and builds up the tension as we realise this is it, this could be the last time LaMotta steps into a ring. It’s true to say that Scorsese uses the boxing ring as an escape for LaMotta, he feels more at home and more ready to face anything there than he does at home or elsewhere. When he’s not fighting he feels anxious or angry, sexual jealousy takes over and it’s a form of clouding focus. The ring becomes a symbol of sight where he can see his goals. This is even more powerful when you relate it to the Bible quote before the credits which is about blindness.
The three lead roles are incredible. Joe Pesci as Joey the brother of Jake was struggling to find work and when you see his well intentioned role as the manager and loving brother of LaMotta you can’t understand how he couldn’t get a gig because he’s great. The consistent times he throws shade on Jake trying to help him focus on weight and not stupid accusations shows his frustration. The debut appearance from Vickie played by Cathy Moriarty is superb. She plays glamorous and vulnerable in equal measure and you can’t help but feel sorry for her when she’s faced with a beast of a husband who never trusts her even when she is actually telling the truth. It’s a powerful performance and she finally steps up from oppressive housewife to leave Jake helping her become more than just a two-dimensional character. Robert De Niro as the title role of ‘Raging Bull’ is expertly brutal as the boxer and believably paranoid when out of the ring and at home with Vickie. De Niro portrays the emotional disconnect of family life to dizzying levels. He’s dedicated in piling on pounds for the later heavier version of Jake and all the way through he possess some charm, menace and acting supremacy so much so that you feel he really is LaMotta.
Some of the later bar and stand up material could maybe have been chopped down, an earlier foreshadowing of Scorsese’s likeness to keeping movies with long running times but apart from this and maybe too much lack of sympathy in Jake LaMotta I can’t find any real rooted criticisms with this movie.
A sterling pedigree of acting talent with De Niro stepping into the boots and gloves of LaMotta and getting under the skin of the savagely dedicated boxer and the darkly flawed husband. A sporting great doing a fine job of telling a painful and dramatic story.