Raging Bull

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Director: Martin Scorsese.
Screenplay: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin.
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana, Mario Gallo, Frank Adonis, Joseph Bono, Frank Topham, Don Dunphy, Johnny Barnes, Michael Badalucco, John Turturro.

You punch like you take it up the ass

While shooting “The Godfather Part II“, Robert DeNiro found himself reading the book “Raging Bull: My Story“, based on the life of 1950’s middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta. It was a story he felt very passionate about bringing to the screen and took it to his good friend Martin Scorsese. Scorsese was, at first, reluctant to do a boxing movie as “Rocky” had recently been released to massive success and he himself, was going through a personal crisis at the time due to the failure of their previous collaboration “New York, New York” and his spiralling addiction to cocaine and lithium – leaving him hospitalised with internal bleeding. They brought in screenwriter’s Mardik Martin (“Mean Streets“) and Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver“) and the film eventually went ahead. It became a form of therapy for Scorsese and has since been lauded as a cinematic tour-de-force and voted – in numerous polls – as the best film from the 1980’s.

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Italian-American, middleweight boxer, Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) has inner demons and is prone to obsessive rage and sexual jealousy which threatens to destroy his relationship with his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and brother/trainer Joey (Joe Pesci). In the ring, he a prizewinner but it’s outside it, that he seems to lose everything.

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On the surface, “Raging Bull” could be seen as just another boxing biopic, much like Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, Russell Crowe’s Jim “The Cinderella Man” Braddock or Will Smith’s Muhammad “Ali”. Scorsese and DeNiro’s vision is an altogether different one, though. It’s not their intention to glamourise LaMotta or deliver a conventional film about pugilism. Their intentions lie in exposing the man beyond the ring – where his real fights took place. The biggest opponent for “The Bronx Bull” was actually himself and his struggle with a raging, psychosexual insecurity and his propensity for self-destruction. It’s here that DeNiro fully takes centre stage in what is, unequivocally, his finest moment (and that’s saying something) throughout an illustrious career of exceptionally strong performances. His transformation is near miraculous; while researching and preparing for the role, De Niro actually spent the entire shoot with LaMotta so he could portray him accurately and went through extensive physical training, entering into three genuine Brooklyn boxing matches and winning two of them. According to La Motta, De Niro had the ability to be a professional fighter and that he would have been happy to have been his manager and trainer. Following this, production was stopped for two months so DeNiro could pile on 60 pounds to portray LaMotta in his older years. His commitment to the role (and project) has now become legendary and highly respected amongst his peers. Quite simply, DeNiro’s smouldering (and deservedly Oscar winning) display is an absolute masterclass in the profession.
Scorsese’s skills manifest in his operatic approach; he’s less interested in cranking up the tension or theatrics of the bouts and more focused on the punishing brutality of the sport. He employs the use of flashbulbs, and several different sound effects – like smashing glass and squelching watermelons – to achieve an overall crunching effectiveness. He’s aided immeasurably by Thelma Schoonmaker’s sharp editing technique and Michael Chapman’s sublime, monochrome, cinematography which serves the film as a whole in it’s mood and noir-ish atmosphere. If the bouts in the ring are claustrophobic then the same could be said for the ‘quieter’ moments outside it; LaMotta’s personal life is uncomfortably scrutinised in his abuse towards his wife and brother. There are very personal scenes of fraught and jealous conversation that are unbearably tense, and fully depict how much of a brute this man really was. It’s testament to the commitment of the entire cast and crew that this highly unappealing and unsympathetic individual can make such compelling viewing.

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A truly searing, cinematic classic, that addresses the unflinching, animalistic, behaviour of a man in need of absolution and redemption. It also happens to possess one of cinema’s most breathtaking and riveting performances. On this evidence, there’s no question that Robert DeNiro is a master of his craft and it’s arguably Martin Scorsese’s finest work as well.

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Mark Walker

Trivia: To achieve the feeling of brotherhood between the two lead actors, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci actually lived and trained with each other for some time before filming began. Ever since then, the two have been very close friends.

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54 Responses to “Raging Bull”

  1. Great work dude, nice to see this on here. Perfect film, incredible performance and dedication from De Niro.

    And I can’t wait for Raging Bull 2…….NOT. Or whatever the hell they are calling it now. Just an insult to this film.

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    • Cheers, man. I could have went on all day about how good DeNiro is here. Outstanding! It’s one of the most worthy Oscar winning performances I’ve ever seen.

      As for Raging Bull 2, the least said about that, the better πŸ˜‰

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  2. Is it terrible I still haven’t seen this? I tried watching it once but got distracted and couldn’t get into it. I felt like a failure as a movie writer…

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  3. What did you think of Scorsese’s use of the color red in the film? It’s a tribute to his love for “The Red Shoes” and he purposefully tints the boxing gloves. I think it’s cool.

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  4. Great write-up Mark. Now I know I’m with the minority here but I feel this film is a bit over-rated at times (I know blasphemy). I wouldn’t give it a perfect score, more like 3.5 or 4. It’s like you said the protagonist is unappealing and unsympathetic. I also feel that the movie it’s self is very somber and not very enjoyable but I guess that is what DeNiro and Scorsese wanted to convey. Incidentally DeNiro was phenomenal, but better than his Once Upon a Time in America… debatable. I realize I sound quite negative and giving the impression that I don’t like the film; I do it’s just that I don’t think it is the masterpiece everyone says it is.

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    • Blasphemy sir! Blasphemy, I say!! πŸ˜‰
      How could you not give this movie top marks? Everything about it is just class. I can maybe understand a 1/2 star being taken off but 3 1/2 overall? You have much work to do young fella πŸ˜‰

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      • Christophe McCallum Says:

        I dunno, I’m a pretty big fan of Scorsese(only not seen 3 or 4 films of his, I think?) and I didn’t like Raging Bull too much. Obviously, there’s the lead performance, which is just staggeringly good, but the rest of the film(aside from the brutal boxing scenes) seemed quite dull to me. Need to rewatch as I last saw it 3 years ago, but I don’t think it holds up to Taxi Driver or even The King Of Comedy(if we’re talking purely performance wise). Good review though, I understand where you’re coming from.

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      • I actually really liked the scenes outwith the boxing ring. It gave a great insight into LaMotta and the verbal exchanges between DeNiro and Pesci were riveting. As was the rising jealousy with his wife. I can see why some wouldn’t take to them but, personally I found these moments to be to the ones were the actors were allowed to fully express themselves. Scorsese’s technical abilities were also outstanding.

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    • Since I could go on and on about the merits of the film I’ll bring up just one aspect of the film Mark didn’t mention. The sound design. Most sound designers have a stock library of sounds that get used over and over and over on films. So much so that it has become a running joke a la the “Wilhelm scream”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_scream .

      For Raging Bull Marty wanted the sounds for the boxing scenes to be unique to the movie. Frank Warner, the sound designer of Raging Bull, created a whole new library of sound effects for the boxing scenes. These include: Smashed watermelon and tomatoes, animal like noises, gunshots (these were used for the sound of camera flash bulbs going off) and many others. Warner’s attention to detail was so precise that no two punching sounds come from the same source. The sound mix for Raging Bull took six months! Warner destroyed the effects after the film was made so no one could ever use them again. It’s this kind of obsessiveness that helped propel the movie to its masterpiece status. Watch the film again and “listen” to it. Combined with Michael Chapman’s cinematography, Marty’s direction, De Niro’s perfomance, I think its masterpiece status is well deserved.

      From a technical standpoint this film is on par with Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey for what it put up on screen. If you know the backstories on the making of those game-changing films you’ll understand what I mean. In that respect the film IS truly a masterpiece.

      Now more to your point. Is it a “likable film”? Is it a story that you want to follow. Probably not. Certainly not for you. The Academy certainly didn’t think so and gave the Oscar’s to Robert Redford and Ordinary People. But honestly, is anyone talking about the brilliance of Ordinary People today? Anyone?

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      • Well said Dave. I touched upon the sound design but your comment sheds even more light on it. It’s very creatively and effectively done. Like you say, this deserves its masterpiece status as across the board, everything is just spot on. It rarely puts a foot wrong and If I really had to pick something, it would probably be that Cathy Moriarty isn’t as strong as she gets credit for. Granted, she was young at the time but I’ve never really rated her as an actress. Still, this just looking for fault. The film is outstanding in ever other way.

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      • Good point about Moriarity. I mean holding her own with De Niro amd Pesci is quite a feat especially at 18 but she never really did anything after that. She got into a serious car accident a few years after Raging Bull. She said between that and the fact that she wasn’t getting offered any roles she liked she didn’t act again for 6 years.

        You did mention the sound design. Doh. I didn’t see Frank Warner’s name there so I must of glossed over it. He supposedly wouldn’t even tell Marty how he created those sounds. LOL.

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      • Yeah, Moriarty was in the company of some very talented people for sure. I suppose she can’t be criticised that much. Didn’t know about car accident, though.

        Good point about Frank Warner. I didn’t mention his name but he certainly deserved a mention. I tried to wrap my review up as I felt I was going on a bit but the omission of Warner was a poor choice. I skippered over the different use of sound effects and then moved on. You’re right to point him out, though, he had a big impact on the movie.

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      • I wouldn’t say you skipped over anything. I’m really taken by the sound of Raging Bull every time I see it. As a musician, interesting sound work on a film really stands out for me. Especially the films of David Lynch with sound designer Alan Splet. He’s one of the only directors that considers the sound equally as important as the visuals.

        Other ones that stand out for me are THX 1138, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. They were all done by Walter Murch who basically coined the term “sound designer” and is considered “The Godfather” (pun intended) of sound design… which of cource he worked on. lol.

        Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven deserves mention too. In the film, which has little dialogue, the director uses sound to convey the disorienting feeling of Peter Greene’s schizophrenia… and here’s the obligatory clip.

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      • You seem to know your stuff on this one Dave. I have heard Lynch go on about how important sound and vision are together. The proof is basically in his movies and that’s what make them so affecting. Lynch is one of my favourite directors and the man can create an atmosphere out of almost nothing. The reason being, his use of sound.

        You know, I actually saw Clean, Shaven many years ago but I don’t think I took much of it in at the time. That’s one I’m going to have to see again methinks. Cheers Dave.

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      • Well Clean, Shaven is pretty low budget and is bordering on experimental. Soderberg is a big fan of the movie.

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      • Yeah, I remember quite liking it but it was a very long time ago. I was a bit of a Peter Greene fan for a while. I wonder what’s happened to him these days?

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  5. performance…*

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  6. Like, like, like. Quite possibly my favourite film, great write-up.

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  7. Nice review. This definitely is one of the greatest movies of all time for sure. I’ve only seen a few performances that rival De Niro’s. This also makes me wish Scorsese would make another film with Paul Schrader.

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    • Cheers buddy! Yeah, another collaboration with Schrader wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Couldn’t agree more on DeNiro either. The man is just a machine in this movie.

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  8. I’ve never seen it….. shame on me, I know….

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  9. An amazing film and as you said a superb performance by Deniro. Now I want to watch it again. πŸ˜‰

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  10. What a beautiful review!! I love learning the history behind the making of this too, that De Niro was the one who was keen on bringing LaMotta’s life on screen. “Their intentions lie in exposing the man beyond the ring – where his real fights took place.” I like that, and that’s what I like about Warrior too, that’s ultimately not just another sports biopic. I’m not usually into boxing films but I definitely need to give this a go, Mark. Thanks!

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    • Thanks Ruth. It just popped up on tv last night directly after your biopic post. I couldn’t resist giving it another visit. I’ve been trying to take a break from writing but I can’t seem to help myself after watching certain films. πŸ˜‰

      You should give it a go but be prepared for a brutally honest depiction of a man who really wasn’t that likeable. However, DeNiro brings him fully to life and it’s mainly this film that solidified his reputation in my eyes and many others. It’s simply one of the most powerful performances ever committed to the screen.

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      • Oooh that’s cool that you’re partly inspired by my post, I’m honored πŸ˜€ Oh yeah, I realize LaMotta is a flawed character, in a way Jim Braddock was too in Cinderella Man. It makes for a more compelling protagonist I think.

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      • I was indeed inspired. It was a bit of synchronicity really. One minute it was mentioned and the next I notice it was on. It’s one I’ve always wanted to tackle but never had the nerve incase I didn’t do it justice.

        LaMotta is certainly flawed that for sure but DeNiro is so captivating its hard to take your eyes off him. Even when he’s being seriously abusive and out of order. He also manages to show the inner turmoil in him and in some senses gain your understanding.

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      • That’s awesome Mark! Glad you did and yes you more than did it justice πŸ˜€

        Seems that your admiration for DeNiro is similar to mine w/ Cate Blanchett. I think that’s key to a GREAT performer that they can somehow convey the inner struggles of a person and somehow manages to make you root for them despite their flaws.

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      • I just can’t get enough of DeNiro. The closest actor to him that i can think of, in terms of commitment, is Daniel Day-Lewis (who even classes DeNiro as his inspiration).

        I can completely understand your admiration for Cate Blanchett too. I think she’s without a doubt, one of the very best around at the moment. In fact, you could in some ways say that Day-Lewis and Blanchett are the modern day DeNiro and Streep in their ability to transform.

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  11. Such a perfect movie, with an even better performance from De Niro. Seriously, anybody who I know that hasn’t seen this and consider themselves “a fan” of Bobby and Marty, I just tell them to wake up and find this wherever they can, but as soon as possible. Good review Mark.

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    • Cheers Dan! I’m actually quite surprised that some people didn’t take to it, let alone see it. As far as I’m concerned, this is a piece of cinematic genius. Scorsese and, especially, DeNiro have rarely been better.

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  12. Superb stuff Mark. What a simply stunning film. This is definitely one of those films I’d say anyone serious about movies should watch. It’s not a complicated film but everything just clicks and everyone from Bobby to Marty to Thelma is right at the top of their game.

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    • Cheers Chris. This is one of those films that you know and remember as a masterpiece, yet when you come across it again, after so many years, it still manages to make an impact. I’ve always been a massive fan of it but after catching it again the other night it somehow felt like I was seeing it again for the first time. It’s such a strong piece of cinema and like you say, near enough everyone is playing at the top of their game.

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  13. Fantasy, fantastic review. This is a movie I soooo need to sit down and watch again. Since you’re a huge DeNiro fan I knew this would get high marks. But deservedly so right? Good stuff bro.

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    • Cheers bro. Yeah, I simply couldn’t give this any less than top marks. It does deserve it. It’s simply, cinematic genius and as a big, big fan of DeNiro, I have to say that he’s never been better than he is here. It’s arguably the finest performance ever committed to the screen.

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  14. Hi Mark, I submitted this to Reddit. Pls upvote it as soon as you get a chance and invite others to do so: http://www.reddit.com/r/moviecritic/comments/1kmeii/raging_bull_a_truly_searing_cinematic_classic/ πŸ˜€

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  15. Finally educated myself on this the other day. 5 stars is right!

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  16. Finally read it. πŸ™‚ Excellent review! I’m still struggling on how to go about mine but will try to get to it this week. I actually agree with the things you’ve said about it! It’s a hard film to “enjoy” (It was for me, at least) while I have to recognize that it’s very “good”.

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    Like

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