Tales of the Squared Circle, and Tragic Elements in Boxing, Raging Bull (1980)

RagingBullThe 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.

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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.

LaMotta's career rival, boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson.

LaMotta’s career rival, boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson.

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. 

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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

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The Fighter (2010) – Blogaganza Part 2

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Film number 2 today as I look at The Fighter (2010) directed by Bafta-winning director David O’Russell (Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook) starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams.  The film is an American biographical sports drama film, depicting the life of professional boxers Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Christian Bale as shamed former boxer Dick Eklund. I saw the film get relatively good critical acclaim but never got around to watching it, to be honest I’ve always avoided boxing in movies for some reason, I’m not too sure why, still need to watch Raging Bull. The film is a bio-pic but imitates documentary style at points as there’s contextually a documentary being made about Dicky during the course of the actual film which is quite an interesting metadiagetic thing. 

Dick Eklund in prison following his cocaine addiction.

Dick Eklund in prison following his cocaine addiction.

Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is an average boxer, trying to make it in a world of talented, powerful boxers. He has an overbearing family that take over his life, most of which his brother Dick Eklund (Christan Bale) known for a controversial win over famous boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and his Mother (Melissa Leo). Dick used to be a decent boxer, but now is a washed up cocaine addict who ultimately drags Micky down, it’s not until he meets Charlene (Amy Adams) that his career starts to turn around for the best. After a ill-matched fight, after Micky is forced to fight a heavy-weight as his original opponent is out sick he considers a contract to train in Vegas. his family consider it mutiny as he and Charlene pair up with one of his father’s friends as he starts to take himself seriously as a boxer as he begins to train. Meanwhile Dicky reaches new lows and is taken to prison after attempting to con money out of people whilst using his girlfriend as a prostitute. Micky fights a tough opponent, but wins the fight through advice his brother gave him while visiting in prison, thus reluctantly when Dicky is released he is allowed to join the team again, now rejuvenated and drug-free. During the ultimate title-fight Micky shows the same symptoms of before, hugging the ropes, on constant guard. Dicky gives him a pep-talk, as Micky takes the fight to Shae Leary and wins the fight.

The title fight build-up.

The title fight build-up.

The performances in The Fighter are very solid, Christian Bale’s depiction of Dicky Eklund winning an academy award for best supporting actor, with Melissa Leo winning best supporting actress. Seeing Amy Adams break away from the sunny disposition is actually very refreshing, she can actually pull off a strong stern woman very convincingly and in my opinion was one of the strongest performances of the film. Mark Wahlberg was fine as Micky Ward, however the role seems relatively straight forward in terms of his character, with Micky prevailing despite the events happening around them, not because of them. In it’s biographical style it’s often said The Fighter is kind of a mixed bag in ways of what it portrays accurately. Director David O’ Russell claims the choreography for the fights are highly based on Micky Ward’s actual fights however, this is a confusing statement considering in his fight with Mike Mungin he was never knocked down and the fight was actually incredibly close and was decided by referee’s decision. This was obviously to emphasize the ill-suit of his family and mother being his manager. In the same vein the title fight against Shea Leary was highly altered as Micky Ward never went down, which again was clearly to milk dramatic tension. However, it’s use of old cameras during fight sequences to capture the old aesthetic is a genius idea, and David O’ Russell also used a former HBO director in order to replicate the fights shot by shot. 

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At face value The Fighter is a boxing film, however there are several themes and motifs that diversify it as an interesting film. Family is a big element in The Fighter, his family hinder and harass him, and put a serious strain on Micky’s relationship with Charlene and ultimately make him quit boxing. However, Dicky is also the big inspiration that gets him to continue boxing, and ultimately he in part owes his title victory to him. I also like that at no point does it flatter Micky, he’s a good boxer but he’s not sensational, he’s not a star. He needs honing, good training, and the support of his family and spouse and it’s the culmination of effort that allows Micky to win. 

Verdict = B The Fighter is a good film, with some serious thought put into it, with good performances and fine direction. Ultimately it’s done well to receive two academy awards for a film that was almost trashed and suffered from serious recasting issues (Aronofsky, and Brad Pitt were originally on board). The fighter has a perfect mix of drama, tension, and boxing and is certainly worth a watch, however if you’re looking for ‘Realism’ go watch Tyson, and if you’re looking for high drama go watch Rocky. Until next time folks, please Follow/Like/Comment, and Follow me @Sams_Reel_Views