Raging Bull

Raging Bull

(Martin Scorsese, 1980)

Rating: 5/5

Reviewed by Dave Lancaster

Summary: A masterpiece a cut above the rest, this isn't the most watchable of the Scorsese/De Niro collaborations but it's as tightly focussed and brutal as they come. The ultimate boxing movie.

Entering its 30th anniversary with a Blu-ray release to mark the occasion, this is as good an excuse as any to rewatch Martin Scorsese's masterpiece 'Raging Bull'. What hits home about it now is how brutal it still is.

Scorsese's films of late have more of a slick, Hitchcock-esque gloss about them that he's used to brilliant stylistic effect in the likes of 'Cape Fear' and 'Shutter Island'. Even his hard edged grit in the crime thriller genre isn't that gritty any more as 'The Departed' proved with its breezy pace and laugh out loud moments, leaving the likes of 'Mean Streets' and 'Taxi Driver' way back in New York. Don't get me wrong, 'Cape Fear', 'Shutter Island' and 'The Departed' are all fantastic films, but he'll never make a film as tough and lean as 'Raging Bull' again.

The story of the boxer is familiar: Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) has a career that could go places but he's conflicted. He's violent in and out of the ring, shredded of humanity by an overbearing fear of desertion and sexual frustration, threatening to explode at any minute whether it's at his wife (Cathy Moriarty) or his brother (an outstanding breakout role from Joe Pesci).

He's paranoid, jealous and indiscriminate, constantly seeing red and reacting with brutality. Suspicion for him isn't an insecurity – it's his mind confirming that his body is justified in punishing someone else as if they're guilty. He never catches his wife cheating, but when he beats her he does it with conviction, not out of frustration. A raging bull is the perfect metaphor.

The same passion is evident is De Niro's performance, as the actor got himself into outstanding physical condition, entering and winning genuine boxing matches winning most. Jake La Motta himself hailed De Niro as one of the top 20 middleweight boxers of all time. And then to go and destroy his athletic frame to gain 60 pounds for the latter days scenes depicting La Motta as an overweight, repugnant entertainer… this is De Niro's magnum opus and there have been many contenders for that crown.

Scorsese is also in a class of his own. Shooting in black and white makes the violence harsh yet inexplicit, while his camerawork in the ring is stellar – using one gliding, perfectly choreographed camera inside the ring gives the viewer the greatest viewpoint, as personal and important as the referee's.

Then there's the choice of classical music and the compelling sound design (crushed fruit was used for the punches, animal cries mixed into the crowd noise, gun shots and smashing glass for the camera flash bulbs) which when added together make for a visceral, heightened experience in the ring, more akin to the stylised frenzy of Powell and Pressburger's 'The Red Shoes' than John G Avildsen's 'Rocky', offset by a simmering, much tamer approach outside the ring. This is no rags to riches, however – it's a man shadow boxing his way to his own destruction.

The Blu-ray adds some great, new exclusive extras including four featurettes which benefit from interviews with Scorsese and De Niro, as well as an absorbing four part feature-length documentary, three commentary tracks and an interesting addition – a shot by shot comparison of De Niro and La Motta in the ring.

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