The Bull is a creature often associated with virility, aggression, and power. It rages out of instinct and fear, to no real goal or end because pure aggression is not something easily channeled. Martin Scorsese’s boxing drama Raging Bull (1980) captures the life of boxer Jake Lamotta adapted from his memoirs of the same name. The title refers to Jake Lamotta’s eponymous ring name ‘The Raging Bull’ known for his unrelenting and savage style of boxing. Boxing really is a tragic sport, particularly when it’s adapted to the frame of dramatic cinema. We see athletes risen as gods in their brief time in the limelight, but rarely is there a soothing catharsis. Is it a fair price to pay to leave your stamp on sporting history? your body? life-span? sometimes your family? Raging Bull is without a doubt the best cinematic depiction of Boxing, purely because it captures the rage and aggression in the ring, and most importantly the incredible pride before a sensational fall from grace.
The story focuses on Jake’ Lamotte’s (Robert Deniro) career as a boxer and his rise up the local talent along side his brother Joey Lamotte (Joe Pesci) who takes care of managerial duties. Unlike some boxing dramas, we see an immediate focus on drama. It depicts as a boxer, and how his style reflects his aggressive and unsettled mood outside of the ring. He and his first wife constantly shout at and berate each other in constant domestic strife as Jake trades his wife in for a newer model, Vickie Thailer (Cathy Moriarty) a young 15 year old girl who he spots at the local pool, who he soon weds. He has a series of 5 matches against Sugar Ray Robinson, of which he won one, and lost 2 to controversial and very split-decisions most of which were booed avidly by the crowd.
His wife Vickie and her old mob connections become utilized as they offer to give Jake the title fight he’s been wanting if he’s willing to throw a fight first. He throws the fight, which ends up incredibly obvious as Jake simply doesn’t fight back because of his pride. The fight is a farce and the New York Athletic commission suspend Jake. A year later, he receives his title shot and wins by unanimous decision. His marriage begins to slowly deteriorate as a result of domestic abuse. After his title win, Jake defends it a few times before beginning to struggle to maintain his fitness. His old rival Sugar Ray Robinson challenges him for the middleweight title, and Robinson wins in a match often referred to boxing’s own version of the Saint Valentine’s day massacre. As he retires his wife and children leave him. Things only worsen for Jake as he regrets losing the ones closest to him now his time as a boxer is well and truly through.
Martin Scorcese’s seedy and sensationalist style, along with screenwriter Paul Schrader’s focus on the dramatic side of Lamotta’s life over the technical is what makes Raging Bull truly gripping and ultimately tragic. In the genre boxing films typically don’t show the latter half of a boxer’s career. They usually build up to a high point, a goal, a title shot or the end of a feud and then call it a day, they often avoid the decline. But Raging Bull is completely different, it entirely dispels the happy endings associated with Rocky-type boxing films. Imagine if Rocky faced Ivan Drago only to taste bitter defeat. The fall of the mighty Raging Bull is the tragic spectacle, the train wreck that we cant help but watch intently. You can learn a lot by contrasting Jake to his long-time rival Sugar Ray Robinson. Robinson was seen as a stellar athlete, a go-getter and an inspiration to all. Often smartly dressed, an entrepreneur Robinson was known for his style and slickness. Alternatively Lamotta was known as a ‘rough and rude’ type, a woman-beater full of rage. He opted to take hits instead of dodge them, often known as one of boxing’s toughest chins. In some ways we follow the villain in Raging Bull, and find it hard to have much sympathy for him in his lonelier years as Robinson’s continues to have a fantastic career winning the middleweight title an additional 4 times. However, one legacy lingers with Lamotta. Robinson never knocked him down, in fact nobody did. And nobody ever would in the ring.
It’s use of black and white as opposed to colour is often disputed in it’s meaning. Most would assume it’s related to the time setting with most of the film taking part from 194o’s and onwards. However in it’s stance, it’s morality, it’s meaning Raging Bull is a very ‘grey’ film. Lamotta left his wife only to abuse a more younger innocent girl. He was imprisoned for escorting minors into the clutches of older men, and he assaulted his brother Joey one of the only true friends he had. Are we supposed to praise him as an athlete? respect his manly fortitude? have sympathy for the guy who’s lost it all and didn’t realize? Or are we supposed to be disgusted. Who knows. Not to mention he only got the title shot due to mob dealings, due to the intense corruption in the sport plaguing boxing in the 40’s-50’s. Would he have ever held the title round his waist if he didn’t have that connection? Regardless of whether Lamotte was a good guy or bad, he left his mark on the sport and a legacy in the ring. I suppose that’s what we celebrate in addition to his cathartic downfall.
Raging Bull was nominated for 7 oscars, and received 2, including the highly relevant Best Actor for Robert Deniro. Raging Bull initially had mixed acclaim because of it’s different and incredibly negative nature and many critics reacted badly to the sheer amount of violence. However, since it’s been widely accepted as one of the best American films ever made and often features frequent on top 100 and top 50 lists. People often look back on the 53rd academy awards and remark how the wrong film got the best picture award for that year, the incredibly formulaic Ordinary People (1980). In general people said that Raging Bull and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man two highly acclaimed films for that year didn’t received nearly enough praise. Raging Bull is a highly intense, brooding drama that depicts to true grit and nature of the sport of Boxing, and could be said to be Martin Scorcese’s best picture. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out. Also I’d highly recommend watching the match i’ve linked and comparing it to Scorcese’s depiction of the finish, a true treat for any sport fan. That’s all for this time. You stay classy WordPress. And follow me @Sams_Reel_Views.
IMDB Top 250 Addendum:
Raging Bull (1980) is a brutal, and immersive look into the past of real-life boxer Jake LaMotta from the ever-talented Martin Scorsese. For me it really defined the biographical picture, and is one of the only films to really capture the true grit and tragedy involved in Boxing. Featuring unforgettable performances from Robert Deniro, and the debuting Joe Pesci, the film boasts some timeless star power even now. The direction is raw, intense, and truly powerful as we follow Jake to his unobtainable highs as middleweight champ, to debilitating lows as a lonely, bloated bum. For me there’s no real question if Raging Bull is deserving of it’s place among the Top 250. It’s number 100, is probably a bit low. For me, Raging Bull will always be among my top 10 and I’m honestly quite surprised to not see it further up.
Judgment – Deserved