Starring: Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Shot entirely in black and white, the biopic is based on the turbulent career and life of the two-time middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, known as the Raging Bull. It covers the period 1941-1964; the first half of the movie depicts his boxing days, and the second half is about his unglamorous post retirement years.
The movie focuses more on a boxer’s life out of the ring. It commences in 1964, showing an aging and overweight Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) rehearsing his lines for a standup comedy act. The story then rolls back two decades earlier, with Jake LaMotta losing his first major match. Jake’s brother and agent Joey (Joe Pesci) discusses his chances for a potential title with one of his mafia connections, Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent). Meanwhile, in spite of being married, Jake gets into a relationship with 15-year-old Vickie (Cathy Moriarty).
In the ring, he defeats Sugar Ray Robinson twice, but due to the biased decision of the judges, he is denied victory in the second bout.
He finally marries Vickie, his love for her gradually becoming an obsession. He is jealously possessive of her and is suspicious of her meeting anyone; her every interaction with a male acquaintance sparks rage in him. Frequent fights erupt, most of which end in Vickie being physically abused.
In one of his bouts, which he wins against Tony Janiro, he brutally smashes the latter’s face because he knows that Vickie finds him attractive. Later, when discussing Jake’s victory with journalists in a night club, Joey spots Vickie in the company of Salvy and his friends. He attacks Salvy and injures him badly in a fight that spills out to the street. The mafia head calls both the parties for a truce and states that Jake must throw his next match if he wants to have a title fight. Jake does not even put up a fight in the said match, thereby getting disqualified. He cries bitterly in the dressing room. In spite of all this, he goes on to win the middleweight title in his next bout against Marcel Cerdan in 1949.
The title win and subsequent success the following year do nothing to quell his proteciveness about Vickie; his insecurities only become worse. Things fall apart when one day he blatantly asks Joey whether he and Vickie are in a relationship. Joey leaves, disgusted, after telling him that he must concentrate on retaining his title instead of indulging in such repulsive behaviour. Unmoved, he asks Vickie the same question. Fed up of the routine torture, she replies that she has sexual relations with Joey and every man in the neighbourhood. Enraged, Jake goes over to Joey’s house and beats him up brutally in front of his family. That marks the end of relations between the two brothers.
Jake defends his title against Laurent Dauthille in 1950, a match even his estranged brother Joey watches on TV. In an attempt to reconcile with his brother, he calls Joey, but is unable to speak when Joey answers the phone. Joey shouts a barrage of abuse, when he hears nothing at the other end. Jake simply puts down the receiver and never makes another attempt to call his brother.
Meanwhile, his career slowly starts to go downhill and he loses his title to Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951. In one of the most poignant scenes, a defeated, bloody-faced and swollen-eyed LaMotta smiles at Robinson saying “You were never able to knock me out, Ray.”
The story then fast forwards to 1956, with a now obese Jake LaMotta having moved to Miami and running a nightclub there, posing with Vickie and his three children for a newspaper interview, depicting a former sportsperson’s happy post-retirement life.
The reality, though, is much different. Vickie soon asks for a divorce, revealing that she had been planning it since his retirement. She gets the custody of the children and moves away. Jake then suddenly gets arrested one morning on the charge of introducing underage girls, posing as 21-year-olds, to other patrons of his nightclub. He is unable to raise enough money for parole, so he breaks his title belt to sell the encrusted gems, only to be told by the pawn shop owner that they would have been more valuable had he left them in the belt. In the most memorable scene from the film, he bangs his head and pounds the walls of his prison cell, crying and repenting his actions and questioning his misfortune.
Two years hence, in 1958, on being freed, he moves back to New York and continues his gigs at various night clubs, also managing them.
In the end, the first scene is flashed again: in 1964, LaMotta is practicing his lines while pondering what might have been, had things been a little different and had Joey looked out for him. A stagehand informs that his act is ready, and the last scene of the film shows Jake exiting the dressing room, shadowboxing like the older days.
This isn’t a biopic about a sportsman hero, because Jake is anything but a hero. This is a story of a man, who, in spite of reaching great heights in the ring, is pulled down the abyss because of his abhorrent behaviour outside the ring. It was a critical success and emerged as the year’s best. The script was based on LaMotta’s autobiography, Raging Bull: My Story, and a lot of changes were made in it (the character of Joey is an amalgamation).
A few moments into the film and the viewer thinks that he is watching behind the scenes footage of a celebrity. Like his other works, Scorsese does not add pleasantry, but shows realism, with human nature at its darkest, the usual expletive-laced dialogues and grimness, which can be appreciated only by a true cinema fan.
This is arguably Robert DeNiro’s best performance, and the most physically demanding role any actor can have and he leaves no stone unturned in becoming Jake LaMotta. His stellar performance is enhanced by the fact that, not for one moment does he even try to make the viewer feel any sympathy for the hatred and envy filled character he is playing.
Jake LaMotta on screen is the exact opposite to Rocky Balboa. Rocky is a hero in every man, who we root for, in his quest to reach for the sky. For Jake, who already has reached the top, the viewer feels only revulsion, and later pity, when he begins his downward slide.
To prepare for the role, DeNiro trained vigorously for weeks under the real Jake LaMotta, even fighting and winning some amateur matches. Production was halted for four months and DeNiro went on a binge eating spree on gourmet food across Europe, in order to add nearly 30 kilos to portray the older LaMotta. On seeing his performance, the real LaMotta quipped “I never knew that I was that bad.”
Robert DeNiro deservedly won the Academy award for the Best Actor for this role, where he had, in his usual style, erased the difference between real and reel.
Joe Pesci, who was an unknown actor at this time, is great as Joey. He, very aptly, portrays the brother who tries his best to stick with his sibling, but puts an end to the whole drama when it gets beyond redemption. This movie was the beginning of his pairing with Rober DeNiro and Martin Scorsese for a decade-and-a-half, in films like Goodfellas and Casino.
Cathy Moriarty is impressive as Vicky in her debut film. Unfortunately, she couldn’t live up to the promise she showed in this film.
Raging Bull is a must watch simply for the appreciation of good cinema.