"They call me an animal ... I'm not an animal ... I'm not an animal ...." - Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro), Raging Bull
Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese's 1980 masterpiece about the troubled boxer Jake LaMotta, has stuck with me ever since I first saw it almost eight years ago. It's a film effortless in its ability to suggest the interior psychology of its main character through the use of carefully composed shots and its boxing scenes are ruthless in their brutal efficiency. Between Scorsese's restless camera (helmed by the great Michael Chapman) and editor Thelma Schoonmaker's razor-sharp eye, Raging Bull retains the capacity to stun a quarter century after its initial release.
It's been said that when you can see a character thinking in a movie, the person portraying that character is no longer acting. I saw this adage brought to life for the first time by Robert DeNiro as LaMotta in this film. His Oscar-winning work here redefined the term "Method acting" as he lost and gained substantial amounts of weight in order to portray the wounded animal that was LaMotta. He fearlessly tackled the role of what one producer deemed "a cockroach" and made it something that transcended a mere sports drama. For sheer goose bumps, look no further than LaMotta's breakdown in a Florida prison cell; heartsick and desperate, he turns his seething anger inward, lashing out at the walls around him.
But DeNiro isn't alone in his excellence – Scorsese's eye for casting was rarely more spot-on than in Raging Bull. Joe Pesci, who was close to giving up acting for good, shines as LaMotta's brother/manager Joey as does Cathy Moriarty, in her feature film debut (she was 17 at the time) as LaMotta's second, long-suffering wife, Vickie. The searing authenticity of this pair of performances help ground DeNiro's; without these two, Raging Bull would likely not be quite the potent work that it became.
Released as part of MGM's "Martin Scorsese Collection," this two-disc special edition is also available in a single disc version, which contains only the film and none of the bonus material assembled on this special edition.
Raging Bull is a film of rare and exquisite power, a true masterpiece. Scorsese would not make another film this brilliant until 1990's Goodfellas, a bold statement with which, it seems, most critics would agree: both Raging Bull and Goodfellas were voted in some circles as the best films of their respective decades. 'Nuff said - if you have not yet experienced Raging Bull, MGM's fine special edition is a great place to start.
Raging Bull looks excellent in this remastered 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The blacks are rock solid and you can see the detail in the fine spray of blood ejected from the wounds of LaMotta and his opponents. There are fleeting moments of softness but overall, this is a very fine looking image.
Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby 2.0 and mono are available on the disc – it's kind of a missed opportunity on MGM's part that the crowd sequences aren't more enveloping. Every flashbulb hisses without distortion and each thrown punch lands with a satisfying, if somewhat lacking, thud. I imagine the studio could've tweaked the sound a little more and made it feel fuller but what's available sounds clear and clean.
As for the Raging Bull bonus material, color me impressed: MGM was able to secure all of the principal talent to participate – even that notoriously shy DeNiro (granted, he doesn't appear on any of the commentary tracks, but hey, take what you can get). No fewer than three commentary tracks appear on this edition; the first, with Scorsese and Schoonmaker is a direct port from the previous laserdisc commentary, significant stretches of silence and all. The "cast and crew" commentary features producer Irwin Winkler, music producer Robbie Robertson, producer Robert Chartoff, actress Theresa Saldana (who plays LaMotta's first wife, Lenore), actor John Turturro (he makes his big screen debut in a brief, uncredited appearance at Webster Hall) and supervising sound effects editor Frank Warner. The "storyteller" commentary features screenwriters Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader as well as LaMotta himself and LaMotta's nephew Jason Lustig.
That's just the first disc – the second disc is where the meat of the extras are located with four separate featurettes that run an aggregate total of 84 minutes and cannot be played all together. The 26 minute "Raging Bull: Before The Fight" details the years-long effort on the part of DeNiro to first get Scorsese interested in the material, then the pre-production work involved with fine-tuning the script and casting. The 15 minute "Raging Bull: Inside the Ring" examines the painstaking care with which the fight scenes were choreographed and shot over a period of 10 weeks; The 27 minute "Raging Bull: Outside the Ring" features reminisces from the principal cast and filmmakers about the making of the film. The 15 minute "Raging Bull: After the Fight" takes viewers through the post-production process, focusing most heavily on sound design and editing, as well as the eventual impact (or, upon its initial release, semi-impact). If there's any quibble to be leveled at the bonus material included here, it's that one or more persons repeat some stories frequently between the various commentary tracks and featurettes. You'll forever have etched onto your brain precisely how long it took to film the fight sequences as well as the knowledge of just why Scorsese chose to make the ring's size fluctuate, etc. Still, better to have too much and repeat than not enough and wonder.
But wait – there's more. In addition to the featurettes, the 28 minute "The Bronx Bull" features even more interviews with Schoonmaker as well as LaMotta while the four minute "DeNiro vs. LaMotta" offers a side-by-side comparison of the two fighters. A brief Movietone newsreel excerpt shows LaMotta defending his title (it's helpfully labeled "LaMotta Defends Title") and to round it all out, the original theatrical trailer is included.
Raging Bull is just one of those movies any self-respecting cinephile needs to view at least once, whether they come away singing Scorsese's praises or not. It's a moving, masterful dissection of a man uncomfortable in his own skin that must lash out at those who love him in order to make some sense of the world - a film that for me, perfectly fits the definition of a modern classic, one that can be watched and rewatched, taking away something new each time. It's a cinch for the DVD Talk Collectors Series.