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Our review of Raging Bull (Blu-Ray) 30th Anniversary Edition, published January 20th, 2011, is also available.
"You didn't get me down, Ray. You never got me down, Ray."
It's pretty amazing that it's been 20 years since this film has been made, but equally amazing is the fact that almost nobody saw it initially when it first came out; it was roundly considered a box office bomb. Yet it still was nominated for seven Oscars, winning two, and has been voted by many as the best film of the last quarter century. After a poor initial disc and a slightly better R2 version, MGM finally gave this film the treatment is so richly deserved. How's it stack up?
Facts of the Case
Based on the autobiography of Jake LaMotta and directed by Martin Scorsese (The Departed), Raging Bull covers a timeframe in the middleweight fighter's life spanning just over two decades. In it, LaMotta (portrayed by Robert DeNiro, Taxi Driver) deals with a virtual child bride Vicki (Cathy Moriarty, Soapdish) who might be cheating on him, and a brother Joey (Joe Pesci, Goodfellas) who has mafia ties that are possibly keeping him from getting a shot at the title. His bloodthirsty occupation oozes into his daily routines, to the point where it invades every aspect of his life and destroys any possible healthy relationship he wishes to maintain.
The fact that the film even managed to get made seems to be a miracle in and of itself. DeNiro, who received his second Oscar for his work as the title character Jake LaMotta, brought the story to Martin Scorsese way back in 1973, after the two had hit it big with Mean Streets and while Scorsese was directing Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. After that film, they teamed together to make New York, New York. To go off on a tangent for a moment, one should put that film in its proper historical context. After New York, New York came out to a lukewarm response, studios wanted to reign in Scorsese, along with other directors who started making classics, but turned into questionable film authors after one bad film. Peter Bogdanovich, after making Paper Moon and the Last Picture Show, came up with At Long Last Love, which pretty much ruined his career for awhile. When William Friedkin made The Exorcist and the French Connection, he then made a film called Sorcerer that was roundly trashed at the time. Even after Raging Bull came out, Scorsese was very skeptical of throwing himself back into a lot of projects, not receiving a lot of critical acclaim after that until 1986's The Color of Money, when he subsequently went on a seven-year run of making outstanding movies.
Back to topic, complicating matters further for Scorsese was MGM's reluctance to put much money into the project. While the studio had success with Rocky, Jake LaMotta was clearly no Rocky Balboa, especially with the film's dark subject matter and violent undertones. Raging Bull was released during the holiday season, receiving far less publicity and press than MGM's crown jewel of its release schedule, the Michael Cimino film Heaven's Gate. Odd what history has done with both films since that time. After a cocaine-fueled Scorsese interviewed the Band and filmed their final concert, producing The Last Waltz, he was hospitalized shortly thereafter for a severe case of internal bleeding. DeNiro visited Scorsese in the hospital and presented him with the story again, and Scorsese relented, as he identified with LaMotta much more than he had over previous years, their self-destructive paths somewhat resembling each other. Even when the Oscar ceremony was held, arguably more people asked DeNiro about his performance as Travis Bickle in Scorsese's Taxi Driver, as several days earlier John Hinckley had attempted to assassinate then-President Reagan in an attempt to earn the adoration of Jodie Foster.
So you know about the stories—the now legendary DeNiro weight gain of over 60 pounds, which startled Scorsese so much that he shortened the production schedule for fear of concerns for DeNiro's health; a 19-year-old Moriarty performing above and beyond her years as Jake's wife; a virtual unknown actor then, Pesci's short temper that is shown in later films gets its first taste in this movie; the fighting scenes were short, yet had incredible style, putting the viewer in the ring with the boxers, something that changed the way the sport was filmed.
For all of Jake's dysfunction in society, the place where he seems to feel most right, and most rational, is in the ring. After a violent falling out with Joey, he has a rematch with legendary prizefighter Sugar Ray Robinson, and in a long remembered scene, Jake puts his hands to his sides, and lets Robinson try to knock him out. At the end of it, LaMotta, through swollen eyes and a bloody face, tells him, "You never got me down Ray." Not only does it mention the obvious, that Robinson never managed to knock LaMotta down in this bout, or any others they had, but LaMotta, it would seem, is thankful to put the past behind him and move on. When he does, he opens a club in Miami, and brings Vicki with him, along with their children, but Vicki has been subjected to so much abuse that she eventually winds up leaving and taking the children with her.
Clearly, this is the biggest anti-hero you will find; a guy who is terrible to women, his family and himself, who is self-destructive to no end. Combine the savagery of the sport with Jake's desire to carry it to his homelife, something that is simply not acceptable. Yet the unfortunate thing is while we pay to see the fights, to ask these men to simply shut off their brutality perhaps may not be fair to them or the families they attempt to raise. There are many Jake LaMottas; we need to look no further than the current state of boxing today to see that the desire for a Mike Tyson return to prominence still exists, but what good comes from it? What good comes from Tyson acting the way he does now? DeNiro's performance is simply amazing, and has influenced so many actors in terms of preparation and dedication to a role since then, which speaks volumes for how well the role turned out. Both Moriarty and Pesci's roles are substantial and exceptional, and considering the circumstances in which both were cast, all the more commendable. Raging Bull is an amazing film, one of the best of the sports film genre, and one of the best of all time.
MGM gave this film the right treatment on its quarter century anniversary, provided it a well-deserved anamorphic transfer. As they should, blacks look excellent, and though the film grain is prominent, it's not too distracting overall. Sonically, they decided to put together a new 5.1 soundtrack to go with the stereo and mono tracks, however this track sounded a bit canned to me. If you're going to enjoy this one, the best choice to go with is probably the mono option.
The extras are not only improved from the first release, but also grabbed from a then-decent R2 release. The commentary with Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (which appeared on the laserdisc) is brought onto DVD for the first time. There are quite a few moments of gaps, but it's got quite a bit of information on it. Scorsese discusses how the film came together and provides shot breakdowns for various scenes. Schoonmaker talks about the process of working with Marty and any particular editing challenges. So yeah, it's quiet, but it's also pretty informative. Track two is a cast and crew track with producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, cinematographer Michael Chapman, casting director Cis Corman, sound editor Frank Warner, music producer Robbie Robertson and actors Theresa Saldana and John Turturro. This track is significantly lighter than the first one, but is worth listening to for the information Chapman brings when it comes to how shots were set up in the film. Winkler and Chartoff recall how tough the film was to get made, leveraging the success of future Rocky films as retribution. And everyone discusses how they first met and worked with Scorsese. Give the track a listen or two. The final track includes LaMotta, Paul Schrader, co-writer Mardik Martin and LaMotta's nephew (or cousin) Jason Lustig. LaMotta is the main participant, providing recollections and answering questions about why he did a particular thing (the main answer seemed to be 'I needed the money'). However he still seems guarded about several things in the film, proving he's still a mysterious figure. Martin talks about his part in the process and still seems to harbor some bad feelings about being left out of the final script, while Schrader discusses what he did to the script to make it more appealing to the studio. It's very interesting and well worth the time.
Moving onto Disc Two, you've got a series of featurettes that cover various facets of the film and when played together, run about an hour and a half. "Before the Fight" runs about a half hour and talks about each of the main participants' interest in the book before realizing it to film. The cast talk about how and when the roles came to them in their lives, and even the bit players (OK, just Frank Vincent) discuss how they got the parts. "Inside the Ring" discusses Scorsese's ordeal, nay, quest, to getting the fight scenes to work. He also talks about how they were filmed and touches upon some of the preparation DeNiro undertook, while Schoonmaker talks about some of the shots with Chapman while they both recall some technical aspects of some shots. "Outside the Ring" covers more of the production itself, how the cast recalled some days on the shoot and the process overall. Yes, DeNiro's weight gain is discussed in this section. "After the Fight" covers the post-production aspect of the film and Warner's part in enhancing the fight scenes, Scorsese's ideas for the score, and includes the usual "legacy" thoughts on the film. The "Bronx Bull" retrospective is held over from the R2 release. Running just under a half hour, this comprises recollections from LaMotta, and opinions of the film from several different British film critics, and a breakdown of the boxing scenes by editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who won the other Oscar for her work on the film. Aside from Schoonmaker's information and the reason why the film was shot in black and white, not too much is revealed here. There's some side by side comparison footage of DeNiro and LaMotta followed by some newsreel footage of Jake, and the trailer completes the set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For Raging Bull? Maybe I could find some flaws, but nothing worth getting my critical brains beat out over. This is just too good a film.
After some years of neglect, MGM finally came to the table with an edition that does justice to the film's presentation, and the supplemental materials were overdue, but are informative and well worth the time. If you don't have this one in your library, you need psychiatric help.
Jake is certainly guilty of his sins, however the film is not guilty of all charges.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker
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