Original US release date: November 14, 1980
Production budget: $18,000,000
Worldwide gross: $23,383,987
I make no secret of the fact that Rocky is one of my all-time favorite films. For me, it’s tough for any other boxing film to truly compare to that undeniable classic. However, legendary director Martin Scorsese released his own boxing movie, Raging Bull, towards the end of 1980. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and won two Oscars, including a Best Actor award for lead Robert De Niro. In the decades since, Raging Bull has stood tall beside Rocky as a classic boxing film, so I decided to take a look at it for an edition of #ThrowbackThursday.
Unlike Rocky, Raging Bull is explicitly based upon a true story: that of boxer Jake LaMotta. Adapted from LaMotta’s autobiography, Raging Bull follows LaMotta from the burgeoning days of his career until its end and somewhat beyond. It’s not an uplifting tale. Truth be told, LaMotta is as unsympathetic a lead as I can recall in a major motion picture – at least as far as leads who are supposed to be protagonists are concerned. He pursues underage girls, has a hair-trigger temper, treats the people around him like trash, and generally only cares about himself. For me (and I would many assume others, as well), LaMotta’s repulsive personality and demeanor make the film rather difficult in which to become engaged. I had no interest in seeing LaMotta succeed in his personal or his professional life and struggled to stay invested in his journey.
Scorsese made the call to shoot the film in black and white, reportedly to differentiate the movie from the aforementioned Rocky, to keep the blood from being too vivid in full color, and to better represent the time period in which the film took place. That second reason seems a little suspect to me as Scorsese has never shied away from blood and violence in his films.
Something else stuck out to me, however; the makeup and prosthetics job on DeNiro for LaMotta’s later years is quite remarkable, particularly for a film released in 1980. Had the film been in color, the authenticity of that particular visual effect would have been severely diminished and may have even caused irreparable harm to the film as a whole (think American Sniper‘s fake baby). I can’t speak to whether or not that played a part in the decision to film in black and white, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
What truly stood out to me was how full of Scorsese’s hallmarks Raging Bull is. The main character is beyond being an alpha male – overflowing with toxic masculinity – who is loud, boorish, and quite frankly a horrible person. Scorsese also directs his actors (as he often does) to alternate between shouting at the top of their lungs and mumbling almost unintelligibly. Characters talk over each other (both while shouting and while mumbling) and it sometimes becomes a bit of a chore to try to listen to the dialogue. As I mentioned earlier, DeNiro won Best Actor at the Oscars for this performance but I wasn’t feeling it. I’m sure he did exactly as he was instructed, but much of it was over-the-top and unnatural, taking me out of the film even more than I already had been due to the unlikeable LaMotta. DeNiro was very obviously acting and it just didn’t work for me.
Scorsese was also not a sports or boxing fan before helming Raging Bull and it shows. The fights play out in ludicrous fashion, with athletes regularly taking a dozen or more clean, square, rapid shots to the head and then dancing away on their feet. Staying upright after more than three hard consecutive shots to the skull is just silly. Combine that with the tight shots and lifeless presentation and Hollywood boxing has never been so dull. I understand that the film isn’t supposed to be glorifying the fighting, yet it certainly felt to me as it LaMotta’s behavior outside the ring was being glorified. He was never angled as a villain who was due a comeuppance. So, if Scorsese was determined to challenge the audience’s very moral foundations, he could have at least struck a balance by recruiting some assistance in making the boxing scenes relatively exciting.
Raging Bull is considered an all-time classic, but I just can’t get on board with this one, even without comparing it to Rocky. LaMotta is unappealing, the boxing is spiritless, DeNiro tries too hard, and Scorsese strays outside of his comfort zone. The film looks nice, but I much prefer Scorsese’s later works (such as The Departed, Shutter Island, and Hugo) to Raging Bull. Still, to each their own, and for the many, many others who love this film, I look at you with jealousy. I wish I could feel the same way. I really tried to. Heck, I even expected to. Having said that, I can’t in good conscience suggest to anyone that they shouldn’t see Raging Bull. Chances are good that most will love it and, even for those like me who don’t, at least you can be in the conversation and maybe get a “Jeopardy!” question or two correct in the future.
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