Combustible Celluloid Review - Raging Bull (1980), Mardik Martin, Paul Schrader, based on Jake La Motta's memoirs (written with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage), Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarity, Joe Pesci
Combustible Celluloid
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With: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarity, Joe Pesci
Written by: Mardik Martin, Paul Schrader, based on Jake La Motta's memoirs (written with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 129
Date: 11/14/1980

Raging Bull (1980)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Brute Force

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Critics everywhere voted Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull the best movie of the 1980s -- which probably says more about the 1980s than it does about Raging Bull -- but it holds up well. It's Scorsese's most stylized movie up to that point in his career, with the black and white photography emphasizing style and myth while still suggesting gritty realism.

As many have said, it's not really about boxing; the boxing sequences have little to do with reality, but cinematically they explode. They move gorgeously and pulse like a hammering heartbeat. Scorsese and editor Themla Schoonmaker broke new ground with their rhythmic editing, using punches and flashbulbs as beats, as well as slow motion, over-cranking, and tons of other techniques. Each of the movie's boxing matches is practically characters in themselves.

Robert De Niro stars as Jake LaMotta, the middleweight boxing champ, who was born in 1921 and is still alive today at age 89. He reigned during the 1940s with 30 KOs on his record. The movie portrays him as nothing but a poor dumb brute, capable of running only hot and cold. He has learned that violence gets him what he wants, and this method has become standard for him. When it comes to women, he has no idea how to relate to them; they're either sexual objects, slaves, or else they're cheating on him or deceiving him in some way.

De Niro won the Oscar for Best Actor, and it's hard to argue that he ever gave a better performance. For a while, it was a big deal that he gained lots of weight to shoot the movie's later scenes, but this practice has now become standard for any serious actor. The real triumph here is how De Niro strips himself down to that brute essence; you can see his short fuse burning in his eyes, and it comes mainly from a lack of understanding. The only time he appears as a whole human being, in control of his destiny, is in the ring.

Cathy Moriarity has the key role as the apple of LaMotta's eye. He keeps her on a pedestal, and she's untrustworthy around other men. Moriarity was just 20 at the time, and playing a bit younger; she has a real movie star presence, a glowing blonde among greaseballs, as well as a husky voice. But she's not idealized; she has a streetwise sensibility that eventually comes out, and a way of talking tough. (She was also nominated, but lost.) Thirdly, we have Joe Pesci, who should have won an Oscar as LaMotta's squeaky younger brother Joey (though he eventually did win for Scorsese's GoodFellas). Joey is the glue in Jake's life, the mediator between him and the rest of the world; he's fast-talking and wise.

Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader adapted the screenplay LaMotta's memoirs. Martin knew Scorsese from NYU and had written or co-written Mean Streets and New York, New York; Raging Bull was his last screenplay (he retired). Schrader, of course, is one of the leading American screenwriters of the era, having written Taxi Driver.

Though the movie is unquestionably brilliant and vibrant, and it's certainly one of the best biopics ever made, I'm not sure it's very deep, really. It's mesmerized by LaMotta, but doesn't seem to truly understand him, except on a level of awe and/or pity. This isn't really a complaint, however, since many of the greatest movies have been made out of less. And once you sit back down to the movie, there's just no question. It packs a punch.

MGM/UA has now released the film for its 30th anniversary on Blu-Ray, with an amazingly rich black-and-white digital transfer. Watching it again, it only grows in stature, moving with a fluid energy and prickly life that most movies can only guess at.

It comes with three commentary tracks: the first by Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, the second by cast & crew (producer Irwin Winkler, composer Robbie Robertson, actor John Turturro (who was an extra in the film), cinematographer Michael Chapman and others) and the third by the "storytellers" (Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin, Jason Lustig and Jake La Motta). There are also four new featurettes -- including one on Scorsese's relationship to movies, and interviews with four modern-day filmmakers -- plus Johnny Carson's 1981 interview with Moriarity.

Then we get four talking-heads-and-clips featurettes from the previous DVD (totaling about 80 minutes), entitled "Before the Fight," "Inside the Ring," "Outside the Ring" and "After the Fight." Another featurette tells Jake LaMotta's story, and an additional short featurette is about DeNiro's commitment to capturing the real LaMotta. Then a short newsreel clip shows the real LaMotta in action. Finally, we get the theatrical trailer.

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