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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Whatever cinematic gods Martin Scorsese offended with 1977's New York, New York, he won his way back into their good graces with Raging Bull, a movie that engages all of the director's creative instincts. This brutal biography of a terminally antisocial boxer bounced around in Scorsese's head for years as an unworkable concept. But the resulting film is successful in theme, presentation and performances. It may be Scorsese's masterpiece. Eleven years ago Raging Bull was one of the first five MGM films released on DVD; it's an excellent choice for Blu-ray treatment.
Martin Scorsese's best pictures -- Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas -- are emotionally draining experiences that present people in the worst possible light. The original Variety review said that "Martin Scorsese makes films about people you wouldn't want to know," and this 1980 boxing movie is repulsively fascinating. It's plenty violent in the ring but the real brutality festers in its completely convincing relationships. They movie reverberates with the sordid awfulness of arguments heard through apartment walls, the ones you don't want to be hearing. Pathetic people treating each other inhumanely is bad enough but Jake LaMotta backs up his every wrong-headed demand and accusation with a threat of violence. We all know people that dominate relationships through petty psychological coercion, but Jake is an infantile monster willing to lash out at any provocation real or imagined. Almost every scene in Raging Bull is an unbearably tense exhibition of kindergarten-level conflicts of the kind we hope we never have to experience personally. Ignorant and uneducated people can be a lot like Jake LaMotta.
Scorsese gets to do what he does best in Raging Bull, balance brutally unflinching relationships with heavily stylized visuals. The film's gritty B&W surface gets and holds our attention. We feel the stale rooms, the sweaty nightclubs and the heat next to the public pool. The slow motion tricks from Taxi Driver work even better here, as does the unflattering attitude toward domestic violence.
In 1980 we went to Raging Bull expecting to see long boxing bouts. We instead got a handful of fight sequences that are easily the most intense and visually stylized scenes of their kind ever. We were jolted by the ferocity of the fighting, the powerful camera moves and the outrageously effective sound effects. Jungle animal screams, machine noises and rockets going off seem to accompany LaMotta's mighty punches, with rioters tossed into the bleachers and blood splattering into the first rows. Scorsese doesn't bother with ordinary backstage boxing dramatics. The five or six matches keep us on edge even though they account for a small percentage of the film's running time.
Raging Bull is the mirror image of the standard inspirational biography, the opposite of Somebody Up There Likes Me. Scorsese finds little nobility or righteousness in the fight game. LaMotta's tale has a natural circularity that must be imposed on stories like Fellini's La Strada, where Anthony Quinn's Zampano eventually comes around to a state of possible redemption. Jake's personal path is universally understood -- a brutish and powerful man discovers too late what he needs and loves. Scorsese doesn't blame drink or drugs or crime or even the ever-present religious icons for any of this; it's just human nature. It gives us chills to recognize even a hint of ourselves in Jake, and makes us grateful for ordinary human decency in any form.
What exonerates LaMotta is his total lack of self-knowledge. The most appalling scene of all is when he destroys his championship belt to extract its cheap jewels. He's too stupid to realize that the gems aren't what make it valuable. He's truly innocent, a blind bull understanding nothing about his own sporting accomplishments.
Raging Bull got Robert De Niro his acting Oscar after he astonished audiences and critics with his commitment to the role -- gaining all that weight "just for a movie." Newcomers Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty are just as good in unbearably intense dramatic scenes. Theresa Saldana and Frank Vincent head a short but effective supporting cast.
MGM's new Blu-ray of Raging Bull reproduces the 1980 theatrical experience. By that time Hollywood was no longer accustomed to making B&W release prints. The film has its own special texture, carefully crafted with chosen film stocks. When the picture shifts to the color home movie sections, we feel like we're truly in the Kodachrome past.
The extras duplicate the excellent contents of the old DVD special edition. Commentary One features director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Commentary Two gathers the cast and crew: director of photography Michael Chapman, producer Irwin Winkler, music producer Robbie Robertson, producer Robert Chartoff, actress Theresa Saldana, actor John Turturro, and supervising sound effects editor Frank Warner. Commentary Three is with writers Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader, boxer-author Jake LaMotta, and LaMotta's nephew Jason Lustig.
Two docus cover much of the same territory. Laurent Bouzereau's show comes in four parts and interviews seemingly everybody: Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, Moriarty, Schrader, Schoonmaker. All are honest and forthcoming about the picture, making the docu one of Bouzereau's most satisfying DVD jobs. Newsreel footage compares DeNiro's LaMotta with the real deal in the boxing ring. We get a chance to see more choice boxing film in La Motta defends his Title.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Raging Bull Blu-ray rates:
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