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Raging Bull (Criterion Collection)
Positively electrifying if occasionally exhausting, Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull is based on American boxer Jake LaMotta's memoir and features a career-defining performance from Robert De Niro as the deeply flawed athlete. There is plenty of drama surrounding "the Bronx Bull," and Paul Schrader was called on to revise Mardik Martin's original screenplay after United Artists balked. Scorsese was initially reluctant to make the film, but related to LaMotta's troubles after struggling with drug addiction and being encouraged by De Niro and others to kick his cocaine habit. Before shooting began, Scorsese and De Niro made further revisions to the script, but remain uncredited due to writer's guild guidelines. Then unknown actor Joe Pesci was cast as Jake's brother Joey LaMotta, and Pesci suggested Cathy Moriarty to play Jake's second wife Vickie. The film may be kinder to LaMotta than he deserves, as the boxer was consulted during both the writing and production stages of the film, but Raging Bull more than earns its distinction as one of the best American films ever made.
LaMotta was a bully, through and through. He began fighting other boys in his Bronx, New York, neighborhood in the 1930s for pocket change at his father's command, and turned to professional boxing in 1941. Known for a series of fights against Sugar Ray Robinson in the 1940s, LaMotta was denied his shot at a middleweight title, forcing him to turn to mob backers and begin throwing fights. He was redeemed, ultimately won the World Middleweight Champion title in 1949, and defended it in 1950 after staging a 15th-round knockout of his opponent. The boxer grew wealthy through both legitimate and increasingly illegitimate means, and spent his early adulthood abusing his family, other fighters and relative strangers. Raging Bull drops in on an aging LaMotta hyping himself up for a comedy performance after his career has concluded, before returning the fighter to his glory in earlier years. What follows is an intimate, unapologetic look at a talented athlete and imperfect man.
De Niro is goddamn fantastic in this movie. The actor gets under your skin and takes you into the character's world in a way few professionals can do. There are times when I wanted to throw something at Jake; scream at him as Joey does to leave Vickie alone or to stop shoving junk food into his mouth and get back in the ring. Raging Bull does not try to capture every moment of LaMotta's life, and instead focuses on the necessary highlights. LaMotta meets 15-year-old Vickie outside a neighborhood pool. He begins a courtship despite being married. The pair ultimately ends up together and has three children as LaMotta's career progresses. But the Bull cannot quell his jealousy, chastising Vickie for her every move, infuriating an exasperated Joey, and even drawing the ire of local mobsters.
Pesci and Moriarty are fantastic too. In a film full of memorable scenes, the moment where a beaten up and beaten down Vickie sarcastically screams at Jake that she is screwing the whole block is one of the best. There are no saints in Raging Bull but there are certainly sinners, and Scorsese expectedly tackles these characters and locations with compelling authenticity. The fights are exciting but never overemphasized, and the film often clicks through memorable matches with quick sequences and title cards denoting their significance. De Niro found natural talent in the ring and was trained by La Motta. He also visited La Motta's ex-wife, whose name is spelled Vikki, and she shared memories of her turbulent life with the boxer that inspired several scenes in the final film.
LaMotta falls from greatness hard. Vickie finally leaves, and he is sent to prison for introducing minor girls to men at his Miami nightclub. Raging Bull does not dwell on the man's strained relationships with his children, nor does it focus on the majority of his seven wives. It does make clear that LaMotta is his own downfall, despite his immense athletic talent. He alienates those most loyal to him - Vickie and Joey - and winds up broke, overweight, and alone. The man can only sob, seemingly to convince himself that he is "not an animal." Raging Bull is a lightning rod of raw talent, both in front of and behind the camera, and it is one of Scorsese and De Niro's best films. The acting, production values and gorgeous black and white photography are top notch. The replay value here is tremendous, and this new edition from the Criterion Collection is a definitive release for collectors that earns my highest recommendation.
Martin Scorsese approved this new transfer, which was remastered in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative. This film looked great on previous Fox releases, but this Criterion release blows those away. This is a gorgeous, natural and perfectly defined transfer of this handsome film. The black and white photography is beautifully textured and abundantly detailed throughout. The movie looks wonderful in motion, with natural grain, inky blacks and attractive highlights. Close-ups reveal intimate facial features, the textures of fabrics and costumes are apparent, and wide shots are crisp and deep. This new transfer is more lifelike than previous editions, and all traces of print damage are gone. There are absolutely no issues with edge enhancement, compression artifacts or source defects to report.
The English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, with optional English SDH subtitles, replicates the theatrical experience and was remastered from the source. Although it does not offer the surround-heavy experience of modern films, this stereo soundtrack is excellent. Dialogue reproduction, score and effects are expertly presented and balanced, without a hint of distortion or crowding. There is no trace of hiss or popping, either, and I cannot imagine the film sounding better.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release arrives in a clear Criterion case with two-sided artwork. A multi-page booklet offers essays and technical information. Criterion provides a great mix of newly created content and legacy bonus material. The disc includes Three Audio Commentaries: one from Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, that was recorded in 1990; the next from director of photography Michael Chapman, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, casting director Cis Corman, music consultant Robbie Robertson, actors Theresa Saldana and John Turturro, and sound-effects supervisor Frank Warner; and the third from Jake LaMotta and screenwriters Martin and Schrader. You also Two Video Essays from film critics Geoffrey O'Brien (25:23/HD) and Sheila O'Malley (17:51/HD). Fight Night (82:58 total/HD) is an excellent, four-part documentary about the production that offers interviews with Scorsese, De Niro, Moriarty, Pesci, Schrader and others. You get three archival pieces on De Niro and Scorsese: Marty and Bobby (13:25/HD), Marty on Film (10:21/HD) and Robert De Niro on Acting (14:42/HD). Things wrap up with an Interview with Jake LaMotta (5:34/HD); Interview with Cathy Moriarty and Vikki LaMotta (7:42/HD); Remembering Jake (10:55/HD) and the Trailer (2:09/HD).
Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull is one of the greatest American films ever made. With its career-defining performance from Robert De Niro and tremendous supporting work from Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty, this is an electrifying true story of the talented boxer and extremely flawed man. This new edition from the Criterion Collection offers fantastic picture and sound and many worthwhile extras. DVD Talk Collector Series.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.