Scorsese and De Niro deliver a cinematic knock-out
With this stunningly visceral portrait of self-destructive machismo, Martin Scorsese created one of the truly great and visionary works of modern cinema. Robert De Niro pours his blood, sweat, and brute physicality into the Oscar-winning role of Jake La Motta, the rising middleweight boxer from the Bronx whose furious ambition propels him to success within the ring but whose unbridled paranoia and jealousy tatter his relationships with everyone in his orbit, including his brother and manager (Joe Pesci) and gorgeous, streetwise wife (Cathy Moriarty). Thelma Schoonmaker’s Oscar-winning editing, Michael Chapman’s extraordinarily tactile black-and-white cinematography, and Frank Warner’s ingenious sound design combine to make Raging Bull a uniquely powerful exploration of violence on multiple levels — physical, emotional, psychic, and spiritual.
Raging Bull needs little introduction. A heavyweight of cinema, thanks to the one-two punch of Scorsese and De Niro. De Niro plays Jake LaMotta, a.k.a. The Bronx Bull. A man who pummeled his way to the top, and then saw his anger and aggression lead to his fall. Battling out of the slums of his New York borough, to taking down the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson, and soon after claiming the middleweight champion crown. His rise in the 40s was mirrored by his decline in the 50s, as his wealth was wasted away, his friends and family were pushed away, leaving him, and his regrets, managing a nightclub in Florida.
Based in part on LaMotta’s autobiographical novel, the film paints a portrait of America, as much as this deeply flawed man. A tale of hope and optimism followed by a greedy, anger fueled period, mirroring the social shifts facing the US in the 40s/50s. LaMotta’s rise is tied to his drive, blunt charms, and aggression, but these traits that mean success in the ring, lead to his own depression. Obsession, jealousy, distrust, are unshakable qualities that bleed a toxicity into his personal life and perceptions of those around him, notably affecting his relationships with his wife Vicki (a truly compelling turn from Cathy Moriarty), and brother, Joey (Joe Pesci, in a nuanced and pivotal performance). Adding to this lashing out wee criminal elements who encircled his profession and career. It does much to the confidence and conflict within a man, to take a dive in a fight to advance a career or line someone’s pockets. While not presented as an excuse, it does futher highlight some of the inner workings of LaMotta’s psyche.
Scorsese’s imagery drives home what boxing is all about, the scattering of blood and sweat, and who’s left standing at the end. High contrast, flitting between angles, dramatic framing, and the editing of his famed collaborator (and Oscar winner for her work here) Thelma Schoonmaker, add a distinct visual flair. it’s impactful stuff, that only underscores Scorsese’s real focus. Obviously centering a film around an abusive man is a hard sell, and some do criticize the film for burnishing some of the more egregious traits off the character. But Scorsese rather deftly lays out the life of this man, whose decisions and actions proving to be his own undoing, something well mirrored in his recent feature The Irishman. He is aided in this by De Niro, tuning in a tour de force performance, losing himself in the role that spans the young, reckless La Motta, ducking and diving in the ring. Though to the aged, shell of a man, more humbled by his past, and the demons within. A searing character study of a man, consumed by his capacity for self-destruction.
Criterion continue their sterling work embracing the 4K UHD format with this latest release, one supervised and approved by Scorsese himself. Raging Bull has a strong aesthetic, and this release is a stellar representation of it. The improvements to sharpness and detail, even in the darker scenes, add a huge amount of depth. Overall, the transfer maintains an organic appearance, with a natural grain, that looks flawless. Even some of the news footage used in the film has been improved while maintaining it’s vintage look. Extra features also impress, including:
- Two discs, one 4K UHD disc of the film and one Blu-ray with the film and special features:
- Audio commentary featuring Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker: Largely focused on the origins of the film, drawing from La Motta’s story, the approach to the overall aesthetic, and the drive and talent that De Niro brought to the picture
- Audio commentary featuring director of photography Michael Chapman, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, casting director Cis Corman, music consultant Robbie Robertson, actors Theresa Saldana and John Turturro, and sound-effects supervising editor Frank Warner: With the breadth of talent involved, you might expect a wealth of diverse information about the film, and this commentary does not disappoint. Background on the origins of the project, how La Motta’s story was adapted, Scorsese’s approach to the film, its lasting legacy, and more
- Audio commentary featuring boxer Jake La Motta, his nephew Jason Lustig, and screenwriters Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader: Probably the most interesting commentary, largely down to the personality exuded by Shrader and La Motta, the latter getting pretty frank about his past, misdeeds, and misadventures over the years
- New video essays by film critics Geoffrey O’Brien and Sheila O’Malley on Scorsese’s mastery of formal techniques and the film’s triumvirate of characters: The first circles around the basis for the film, and how La Motta’s character is infused into it, and Scorsese’s particular style brought to bear here. The second, is more focused on the characters and their arcs in the film
- Fight Night, a making-of program featuring Scorsese and key members of the cast and crew: A four part documentary, running just over an hour in total. Cuts together clips and interviews with various cast and crew members to do a really nice dive into various aspects of the production
- Three short programs highlighting the longtime collaboration between Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro: Archival additions that still provide very effective at exploring the relationship between the actor and director, and how they have influenced each other
- Television interview from 1981 with actor Cathy Moriarty and the real Vikki La Motta: A short addition, but one that gets closest to delving into the more flawed sides of La Motta’s personality
- Interview with Jake La Motta from 1990: Captures a lot of the man’s ‘character’, intercut with footage from his boxing career
- Program from 2004 featuring veteran boxers reminiscing about La Motta: Gives a good insight to La Motta’s “in ring” legacy
- PLUS: Essays by poet Robin Robertson and film critic Glenn Kenny: In the liner notes, which also detail the restoration and transfer of this release
The Bottom Line
Raging Bull is an iconic piece of American cinema. A damning treatise on masculinity and aggression, via the rise and fall of an immensely flawed man. Criterion’s 4K release is a knockout, serving as a fine reminder as to the film’s potency, as well as the artistry of Scorsese and the magnetism of De Niro.
Raging Bull is available via Criterion on 4K UHD now