Martin Scorsese's acclaimed biopic of Jake La Motta, the boxing world champion who rose rapidly to fame but swiftly fell from grace. On the road to success, La Motta (Robert De Niro) marries the beautiful young Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), but the pressures of success soon make him paranoid and he ends up alienating both his wife and his brother, Joey (Joe Pesci). Shot entirely in black and white, the film features brutal fight scenes and sees an Oscar-winning performance by De Niro, who famously tailored his physical appearance to suit the role, putting on 50 pounds to portray the portly, middle-aged La Motta.
The high-point in the long fruitful partnership of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, and widely reckoned one of the finest films of the 1980s, Raging Bull
still looks like a contender. Based on the ghosted autobiography
of 1940s boxing champion Jake La Motta, it's the most searing, intense and often painful to watch of Scorsese's explorations into the nature of masculinity and macho values. The rise of La Motta, the taut, cocky young fighting machine from the Bronx, is bookended by the scenes in which, as a paunchy, bloated has-been 20 years later, he's reduced to acting out self-pitying monologues in a tawdry Manhattan nightclub. The film is shot in crystalline black-and-white, masterfully framed and lit by Michael Chapman, partly as passionate movie-buff Scorsese's response to the way in which classic colour films were at this time being allowed to deteriorate into pinky-mauve travesties of their original rich tones.
Making their starring debuts, Joe Pesci as La Motta's long-suffering brother and manager, and Cathy Moriarty as his delicate-featured, abused child-wife, both grab their opportunities with both hands. But the film's dominated from the outset by De Niro's tour de force performance as the brutal, hair-triggered La Motta, viciously lashing out at the world in self-destructive fury. De Niro, who had first suggested the project to Scorsese back in 1973, threw himself into the role with near-demented dedication, submitting to a full year's punishing training programme to gain a boxer's physique and fighting skills--then taking two months off in Europe to stuff himself relentlessly till he had gained 60 lbs to play the slobbish, washed-up ex-champ. It's a performance of scary believability that makes you realise how casually, these days, the actor is coasting through his later career. Raging Bull was nominated for eight Oscars and picked up two, one for De Niro, and one for Thelma Schoonmaker's editing.
On the DVD: not much, just the original trailer, and a brief promo for some of MGM's other DVD releases. There's some useful production info in the printed booklet enclosed in the box, but couldn't they have got Marty to say a few words? The images look stunning in their original widescreen (1.85:1) ratio, but neither the Dolby Digital sound nor the print seems to have been remastered. Such a major re-release deserved a little more effort. --Philip Kemp