Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Film Review: Raging Bull

"Raging Bull"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

You've heard it all before. Greatest movie of the 80s. Martin Scorsese's best film. Robert De Niro gained 60 pounds to play the role. None of that mattered to me as I watched "Raging Bull" (1980) again. What I came away being fascinated by was how well Scorsese knows these characters. For some reason I had it in my head "Raging Bull" didn't properly fit in the cannon of director Martin Scorsese's films because it was about boxing. First of all, the movie is not about boxing and secondly, the movie deals with the same neighborhoods and characters Scorsese's previous films dealt with.

Listen to the way Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta and Joe Pesci as his younger brother Joey speak to one another. It sounds real. That has always been one of the virtues of any Scorsese movie. His characters speak the way people with these backgrounds would speak. Scorsese grew up in these characters in Little Italy in Manhattan. He breathes the same air these people breathe. He understands their mentality. Jake La Motta and Joey are real people. There is rarely a false note in their performances. It doesn't feel like we are watching two actors give a performance.

The way he is presented in this movie Jake La Motta is a bum. He is a neighborhood rat. Like the Harvey Keitel character in "Mean Streets" (1973) La Motta thinks he is better than the neighborhood he comes from. He has a plan to get out. For Keitel it meant opening a restaurant. For La Motta it means becoming the middleweight boxing champion. In the big scheme of things, both men are after small potatoes. They only appreciate the materialistic because what else can they achieve in life? They have no education. What is so different about Jake La Motta compared to characters in "Mean Streets" or "GoodFellas" (1990)? People from these neighborhoods had limited options. They get in with the wrong crowd as a way to survive. La Motta was an animal. He was tough. So he became a boxer. But is his fate any different than Ray Liotta in "GoodFellas"?

"Raging Bull" is not about boxing. It is about redemption. The movie ends with a biblical quote from John IX. 24 - 26 "I was blind and now I can see".  Redemption is one of the major themes in the work of Martin Scorsese. In the end Jake La Motta acknowledges he has hit bottom. Here was a man that was a championship contender. A man that eventually became a champion. And he ends his life as a fourth-rate comic working in strip clubs and finds himself in prison. What has become of this man's life? Does he learn the error of his ways? Or is he still looking for someone to blame? Many interpret a moment when La Motta looks in a mirror and recites the famous "I coulda been a contender" speech from "On the Waterfront" (1954) as a rebuke of his brother. I think La Motta is talking about himself. No one but La Motta stopped him from being great. Besides being a raging bull he was also a stubborn bull. La Motta did things his way.

There are a lot of people for him to blame though. The neighborhood mob guys who wouldn't give him a title shot unless he played ball with them and took a few dives. There was his brother Joey. Did he really have his best interest at heart? Was he listening to the mob guys too much? Was he secretly against him? What about his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty)? She distracts him. Is she cheating on him? And if she is, with who?

The movie examines La Motta's life between the years 1941 - 1964. In the 1940s we see La Motta dominate his opponents in the ring but is unable to receive a title match. La Motta knows he must play ball with the mob but wants to win the title his way - on his own without help from anyone. So, he goes through the decade never receiving a shot until 1949, when he finally agrees to the mob's terms and defeats champion Marcel Cerdan.

During this time period La Motta meets Vickie, a 15 year old neighborhood girl, at the local swimming pool. Though La Motta is already married he pursues the young girl. These are some of the few moments in the movie when he see La Motta resemble something of a human being possibly capable of feeling love or something close to it. Though I to think La Motta approaches Vickie the same way he would a fighter. As soon as La Motta sees Vickie, at a distance, he tells Joey he has her all figured out. He knows what he needs, what kind of guy she is looking for. La Motta has a strategy to win her. This is no different than the way he approaches a fighter in the ring. You figure out your opponent's strength and weaknesses. You work out a strategy on how to beat them. This is what La Motta is doing. He is sizing up his opponent.

After La Motta and Vickie marry he begins to suspect she is cheating on him. Does she still see men from the neighborhood? Maybe she is sleeping with Joey. Or someone he doesn't even know. So he confronts his wife, repeatedly. He flat out asks his brother. And this leads to his downfall. The jealousy becomes too much for Vickie to handle. La Motta loses his title. He can't focus.

In the end, it all ends badly, as it does for so many Scorsese characters. They ride high and crash hard. Their lifestyle catches up to them. La Motta is not able to avoid this fate. He becomes a stand-up comic, opens his own nightclub, loses the nightclub, goes to prison, falls out with his brother, Vickie divorces him.

While there is a lot to admire about "Raging Bull" I must admit, it is not a favorite of mine. It is not one of my favorite movies nor would I say it is one of Martin Scorsese's best movies. Yes, I am well aware of the praise that has been thrown at the movie. Declared by several critics (sheep) as the best movie of the 1980s. The movie earned eight (8) Academy Award nominations including best picture but lost to "Ordinary People" (1980). Considered to be one of the biggest mistakes the Academy ever made. De Niro's performance was and still is ranked among one of the greats in cinema.

Yet I find the movie to be cold and distant. It features a lead character I am simply not that interested in watching. Emotionally I feel almost nothing for the movie. But there is no denying the quality of filmmaking involved. I appreciate the physical toll De Niro was willing to undergo to play this character. I like the black & white cinematography. I enjoy the feel of the time period and the neighborhood which Scorsese is able to capture. I can feel all of these things but still not like the lead character or have much of an interest in his life. That is why I rate the movie as highly as I do. Imagine if I actually cared about the character!