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Our review of Raging Bull: Collector's Edition, published August 31st, 2007, is also available.
"You never got me down, Ray. You hear me? Never got me down."—Jake LaMotta
Raging Bull began as Robert DeNiro's obsession. After reading former middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta's autobiography Raging Bull: My Story, DeNiro bought the film rights and began working on Martin Scorsese to helm the picture. Scorsese found LaMotta an interesting character, but couldn't muster passion for the project. After seven years of pestering him during their collaborations on Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and New York, New York, DeNiro finally wore Scorsese down. The director should be thankful for his friend's single-mindedness. Raging Bull proved to be the high point of Scorsese and DeNiro's work with one another, and one of the two best films of Scorsese's career (the other being Goodfellas).
Facts of the Case
Raging Bull covers nine years of Jake LaMotta's (DeNiro) boxing career, from his first bout against Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes, The Warriors) on October 2, 1942 to his sixth and final fight with Robinson on Valentine's Day, 1951. But the movie is more concerned with the Bronx Bull's volatile and often abusive relationships with his brother and manager Joey (Joe Pesci, Goodfellas) and much younger wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty in her acting debut). LaMotta's life as a prizefighter in the '40s and '50s is framed against his second career as a middle-aged, out-of-shape nightclub comic, trading on his earlier glory.
Jake LaMotta's career in the ring is largely defined by his six bouts against Sugar Ray Robinson. To the extent that Raging Bull is a sports film (and it really isn't), it concerns itself almost entirely with LaMotta's rivalry with Robinson. In the eyes of many fight fans and boxing historians, Sugar Ray is, pound for pound, the greatest prizefighter the sport has ever seen. His style was fast, fluid, and showed signs of great tactical brilliance. LaMotta was the perfect foil for Robinson, a squat, powerful brawler, who was relentlessly aggressive and almost preternaturally capable of absorbing damage. The LaMotta-Robinson fights were epic, despite the statistics making them appear a gross mismatch. Robinson won five of the six contests, but LaMotta handed him his first ever defeat in their second meeting. LaMotta also knocked Robinson down twice, but Robinson never put LaMotta on the canvas in any of their fights. It's unlikely that LaMotta would be well remembered without Robinson; and Robinson wouldn't be the legendary boxer that he is if he hadn't weathered and overcome the trials by fire through which LaMotta put him.
Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman shoot the film's boxing matches unlike any other fights in any other boxing movies. Having come away from The Last Waltz, his documentary and concert film about The Band, with a keen sense of the atmosphere of the stage, Scorsese frequently shoots the boxing in Raging Bull from low angles with the camera looking up at the fighters and into the bright overhead lighting above the ring. The effect is to lend the proceedings a sense of heightened artificiality. He also tends to push the camera in close to his actors, focusing on their faces in order to cut through the technical aspects of the sport and capture the aggression, fear, pain, and disorientation that attends two men fighting before a crowd of thousands. Scorsese is more interested in the emotional landscape of the sport than in the sport itself, yet there's a gritty realism that comes through in the movie's big boxing sequences precisely because Scorsese isn't particularly interested in making the fights mean anything. He approaches them with a peculiarly detached objectivity.
Raging Bull isn't a typical sports film because it doesn't romanticize boxing or treat it as a metaphor for LaMotta's internal turmoil. It avoids building to a climactic confrontation that provides epiphany and growth for its hero. Instead, Scorsese treats the boxing as a simple fact of LaMotta's life, an enterprise that is at once fruitless and ideally suited to the man's unique mix of physical talent and relentless stubbornness. The title Raging Bull may be a play on LaMotta's nickname as a fighter, The Bronx Bull, but Scorsese is far more interested in the man's raging outside of the ring. Raging Bull confounded critics and audiences in 1980 because of how it evoked their respect for LaMotta's tenacity without flinching from the dark aspects of his personality. Jake is a violent, foul-mouthed man driven by rage and jealousy. In what is perhaps the movie's most harrowing sequence, he attacks his brother in front of his young niece and nephew because he believes, without reason, that Joey has been sleeping with Vickie, and then he knocks his wife out with a squarely planted right cross. It's a horrifying scene of abuse, and Scorsese's camera stays trained on the action with documentary detachment.
LaMotta's antics rise to the level of tragedy instead of mere low-class grotesquery in large part because of Robert DeNiro's astounding performance—the greatest of his career. If his recent work has caused you to suspect that DeNiro has always been overrated, give Raging Bull a spin. You'll quickly be reminded of the actor's tremendous screen presence during the peak years of his career. Few performances in the entire history of cinema match the sustained intensity and complete submersion into character that DeNiro delivered in Raging Bull. Much is made of the fact that he insisted on gaining 60 pounds to play LaMotta in his post-boxing middle-age (a decision that resulted in a surprisingly effective framing story, rather than the self-conscious Method pretensions one might imagine). But it's DeNiro's performance as the younger LaMotta that truly impresses. The way that he holds himself, his walk, and the anger and jealousy behind his eyes make it easy to forget you're watching DeNiro and not LaMotta himself. There are simply no false notes in DeNiro's work in Raging Bull.
Scorsese and Chapman shot Raging Bull in black and white, a decision that increases the movie's documentary power, makes its violence bearable, and focuses our attention on the emotional intensity of the cast. Presented in a 1080p/AVC transfer framed at 1.78:1, the film looks fantastic in high definition. The image doesn't have the smooth, lustrous sheen of modern black-and-white movies shot digitally or on color stock and then desaturated in post-production. Raging Bull has the grit and grain of a movie shot during the era in which it is set. The increased resolution capabilities of Blu-ray mean that the transfer reproduces the grain structure of the original celluloid image better than any standard definition could. Contrast is far superior also. Blacks are deep and rich, while whites sparkle. The image never descends into the muddy grays sometimes present on the DVD releases of the film.
The default audio option is a surprisingly solid DTS-HD master audio expansion of the movie's original Dolby surround track. The mix is carefully balanced with dialogue primarily in the center speaker, effects in the front, and the often lush score occupying the entire soundstage. Purists will be pleased to know that there is also a Dolby stereo surround mix better matching the movie's original theatrical audio mix.
Housed on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc, this 30th Anniversary Edition of Raging Bull includes a ton of extras, both old and new. The disc contains three commentary tracks. The filmmakers' commentary dates back to the laserdisc release of the movie. It includes Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker discussing all aspects of the production. The cast and crew commentary gathers contributions from producers Irwin Winkler, Robbie Robertson, and Robert Chartoff; actors Theresa Saldana and John Turturro; sound effects editor Frank Warner; cinematographer Michael Chapman; and casting agent Cis Corman. The storytellers' commentary includes screenwriters Mardik Martin, Paul Schrder, and Jason Lustig, as well as Jake LaMotta himself.
In addition to the three commentaries, there are four new featurettes, all presented in high definition:
Marty and Bobby (13:35)—Constructed of contemporary interviews and scenes from their movies together, this featurette covers a lot of ground in its short run. It takes snapshot looks at Taxi Driver, New York, New York, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas.
Raging Bull: Reflections on a Classic (12:15)—Filmmakers Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don't Cry), Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), and Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men) analyze the greatness of Raging Bull and reveal how it influenced their own movies.
Remembering Jake (11:04)—Set in the Crab House restaurant in Queens, New York, during the monthly meeting of the Veterans Boxers Association, this featurette gathers thoughts about LaMotta from old boxers and old boxing fans. It's a colorful piece involving a lot of colorful characters.
Marty on Film (10:30)—In this video essay of sorts, Scorsese discusses the power of cinema, how it captured his imagination as a child, and his career as a director. It would probably be a lame and self-serving featurette except that, as always, Scorsese speaks about film with an unmatched passion, eloquence, and earnestness.
There are also a number of older supplements, presented in standard definition:
Cathy Moriarty on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, March 27, 1981 (6:42)—This brief excerpt from the heyday of late night talk shows is exactly what its title implies: Six minutes of Moriarty promoting Raging Bull.
Raging Bull: Fight Night (82:32)—Carried over from the Collector's Edition DVD, this is a four-part feature-length making-of documentary covering all aspects of the production, from LaMotta's autobiography, DeNiro's obsession with the project, the movie's initial release, and its blossoming critical prestige over the years.
The Bronx Bull (27:54)—Heavy on critical analysis, this piece focuses on Raging Bull's unlikely rise to classic status. But it is most notable for the contemporary interview footage of Jake LaMotta, who talks a bit about his career and his reaction to the movie.
DeNiro vs. LaMotta (3:47)—This featurette compares scenes from the movie with archival footage of LaMotta to demonstrate the eerie accuracy with which DeNiro inhabited his role in the film.
LaMotta Defends Title (1:00) is a MovieTone newsreel report of LaMotta's title defense against French fighter Laurent Dauthuille.
The disc also houses the movie's original theatrical trailer in full 1080p.
Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro are one of the greatest director-actor teams in cinema history. Raging Bull is their finest collaboration. This 30th Anniversary Blu-ray offers a beautiful transfer, as well as a large and definitive slate of supplements. It belongs in your collection.
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