April 28, 2008

Raging Bull (1980)
Grade: 84/100

Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci

What it's about. This acclaimed film is the official biopic of former middleweight champion Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro). La Motta fought during the 1940s and 1950s, and is famous as the first fighter to defeat Sugar Ray Robinson, who retaliated with several wins of his own against La Motta.

After his career ended, La Motta had various family, legal, and professional problems. The movie suggests he eventually achieved equilibrium as a comedian and stage performer in seedy nightclubs. But he apparently never lost his sense of who he was. The downward spiral must have ended, since La Motta is still alive today, having long outlived Sugar Ray, Joe Louis, and other contemporaries.

The Martin Scorcese and Robert De Niro version of La Motta focuses on his two closest relationships, with his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and brother Joey (Joe Pesci). Since the La Mottas are both scrappy and antagonistic, Jake's marriage to Vickie provides more contrast. Beautiful, languid Vickie learns to become terse and submissive, but its not enough to save their marriage. Jake is too selfish, and has too many demons.

How others will see it. Raging Bull was an immediate critical favorite, and its reputation has held up. This is in contrast with Ordinary People, which came out the same year and had the temerity of beating out Raging Bull for Best Picture (De Niro settled for Best Actor).

Naturally, red-blooded American men, both then and now, protest that Raging Bull was robbed. And it is an excellent movie. But Ordinary People is better, even though men will always prefer De Niro's macho Angry Man boxer to Timothy Hutton's wimpy Deer In The Headlights high school student. Plus, there's the bonus of Joe Pesci slamming a car door on a mobster flunkie. Again. And again.

This brings up the matter that the occasional person will actually dislike the present movie, because it glorifies anti-hero behavior. La Motta is an abusive, coarse, and jealous jerk. And we are supposed to cheer for him (and most of us do). But that's the movies.

De Niro/La Motta is the man we'd secretly like to be, but we know we can't get away with it, because we would quickly lose our job, friends, and spouse. His character is consistent with that of the lead in the hot video game of the moment, Grand Auto Theft IV. Fulfill your base urges. You deserve it, simply because you want it.

How I felt about it. Did it really happen that way? I wasn't there to know, but La Motta's boxing record is public domain. He really did lose a decision to a man saved by the bell in the final round. He really did knock a man out in the waning seconds of another bout, when he was hopelessly behind on points. And it's true, he was never knocked down in his career until his final bouts, when he was just a bum trying to pick up a check.

The acclaimed boxing scenes have their pluses and minuses. The fact they are in black and white, as is the remainder of the film, gives them authenticity. The slow-motion, the classical music, the silence, and the oversized ring seem gimmicky. The punishment and flurries are also somewhat unconvincing since we know that defense is a key component of boxing. Even if La Motta was a "raging bull," his opponents were more cagey.