[box cover]

Raging Bull: Special Edition

MGM Home Video

Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty,
Frank Vincent, and Theresa Saldana

Written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin
Based on a Book by Jake La Motta, Joseph Carter and Peter Savage

Directed by Martin Scorsese

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

Among the many accolades that have been conferred upon Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull since its release in November of 1980 is that of "Best Boxing Film Ever Made," an encomium it seems to have garnered simply by virtue of every film magazine and society declaring the picture the finest achievement of a decade badly starved for greatness. So, when Sports Illustrated broke ranks last year to hand the belt over to Rocky (the movie that out-pointed Scorsese's Taxi Driver for Best Picture in 1976!), many eyebrows were raised.

They shouldn't have been (save for maybe the crowning of Rocky over, say, Fat City, or When We Were Kings). Though Scorsese and writers Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader succeed at conveying the agonizingly manipulative influence of organized crime that has always tainted the sport, particularly in the era that its subject, Jake LaMotta, contended and briefly held the Middleweight title, forcing fighters to throw a fight or two as a profitable act of fealty before getting their shot at the belt, Raging Bull is finally as much about boxing as The Fountainhead is about architecture.

This is partly due to Scorsese's distaste for boxing, and sports in general. As is repeated several times on this excellent two-disc set's many supplements, he didn't want to make this movie. The passion for the project was initially De Niro's, and he tenaciously kept after his own private John Ford until the director wound up in a hospital "exhausted" due to a ferocious cocaine habit. Finally, Scorsese saw the potential for cinematic transformation in the putrid life of LaMotta, or, more likely, recognized a need to reenergize his dedication to the craft by way of utilizing every trick, every angle, every last article of filmic vocabulary. The making of Raging Bull would be a consuming creative journey, the final product a gritty valentine to filmmaking, a clarion call of reinvention, andÍ well, something ostensibly about a heel's penance and absolution.

That latter aspiration has always been the most troubling aspect of Raging Bull, and is obviously the reason why film geeks, when praising the director's work, head straight for the gleefully amoral timpano of Goodfellas or the gory pulp deep-dish of Taxi Driver rather than go a few rounds with one of the most technically accomplished motion pictures ever made.

And that's because Raging Bull means everything to Martin Scorsese, and very little to anyone else.

*          *          *

The autobiography Raging Bull: My Story, spit out by LaMotta and shaped by co-authors Joseph Carter and Peter Savage, is literally a loathsome book, a battering ram of hate. It is also a supremely unrewarding read — a sociopath's confession that burdens one with revulsion, while allowing the author to unburden his load and reap a decent payday in the process. (Thus, it's not plain to see why Robert De Niro, King of Anti-Social Misfits from Greetings on through Taxi Driver, fell in love with the tome, which offered up the potential to inhabit yet another irredeemable monster.) The best that can be said of LaMotta is that tough as he was on those around him — and, boy, was he tough to the tune of multiple beatings, a rape, an attempted murder, etc. — he's almost as tough on himself.

It's this self-flagellation that surely piqued the Catholic-raised Scorsese's interest, allowing him to quote the sacred likes of Dreyer, Bresson, Fellini, and Passolini, while contributing his own religious imagery to the canon. Add once again the Calvinist Schrader into the mix and, suddenly, LaMotta's life becomes a full-scale meditation on sin and redemption. Though larded with undue symbolism, Scorsese at least receives the indispensable assistance of his longtime collaborator Mardik Martin, whose ear for the malapropism-heavy patois of Italian-American palookas helps the director immerse the viewer once again in the vibrantly close-quartered New York City of his youth.

After the celebrated, overcranked, hypnotically balletic opening title sequence scored to the now over-referenced Intermezzo from Macagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, Scorsese plunges the viewer into the squalid trappings of LaMotta's life, beginning with his first professional defeat in a seedy Cleveland, Ohio auditorium. It's an awful setback for the fighter, but, once back in the Bronx, rather than reflect, LaMotta starts bleating that he'll never achieve true greatness if he can't fight the greatest of all champs, heavyweight Joe Louis. Moments later, he's fired up over nothing (a steak so overcooked by his wife that it "defeats its own purpose"), asking his loyal brother and trainer, Joey (Joe Pesci), to fire right crosses into his bruised and battered noggin. It's a pattern of abuse that will be echoed repeatedly before the end credits roll.

LaMotta is that most classic variety of thug: the jealous hypocrite who will remorselessly rain down on others the very infractions that violently inflame his ire. This is evident in his pursuit of the woman who will become his second wife, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a teenaged trollop who's made the mobster rounds but appears to LaMotta a vision of purity, kicking her lithe gams in the cleansing waters of a public New York City swimming pool. Joey warns his brother of Vickie's licentious past before introducing the two, an awkward "meet-caged" moment invested with all the romance of LaMotta picking out a dog at the pound.

Their sexual encounters reveal LaMotta as an emotional naïf outdone in experience and savvy by Vickie, portending the worst as their relationship grows; she's got the mug frazzled. As LaMotta begins to suspect the entire neighborhood has enjoyed a romp with Vickie (Scorsese keeps the paranoia quotient high by never revealing whether this is so), he battles on in the ring, seeking that elusive Middleweight belt, which necessitates a number of bloody tangles with his archrival Sugar Ray Robinson (often hailed as the greatest fighter of all time, so it's significant that his only career defeat came on the business end of LaMotta's six-ounce gloves).

The closest the film comes to eliciting sympathy for LaMotta is when he strikes a deal with the mob to throw his upcoming fight with Billy Fox in exchange for an eventual shot at the Middleweight crown. He performs poorly, standing around and absorbing punishment, but while taking a beating was never a problem for LaMotta, giving nothing back in return is unthinkable. Befitting his moniker, LaMotta was a ferociously aggressive fighter, leading with his head and dishing out worse than he got, which was plenty bad; ergo, the viewer, already on his savage wavelength thanks to Scorsese's psychologically attuned efforts, seethes with the brute. Perversely, it's the only indignity visited on LaMotta that feels unjust and unbearable. Still, having done right by the mob, LaMotta is rewarded with a title shot two years later, resulting in a dismantling of Marcel Cerdan.

And now the horror show. At the pinnacle of his profession, and with nothing more to work toward, LaMotta now trains his obsessions exclusively on Vickie and her possible dalliances. Incredibly, rather than confront any of her mobster boyfriends, he accuses his own brother of bedding down with Vickie, which is particularly unconscionable given that it was Joey who administered a deliriously lopsided thrashing to her most shamelessly public paramour, Salvy Batts (poor Frank Vincent, whose Scorsese-film blood feud with Pesci is one of cinema's great running gags), though to what extent Joey's fury is personally tinged goes unexplored like so much else in the film.

LaMotta's eruption is Raging Bull's turning point; stomping into Joey's home and nearly killing his brother with his bare hands in front of his wife and children, the audience's already tenuous connection to LaMotta is fully severed — all else is a technically dazzling chore to sit through. Emotionally, Scorsese's biggest misstep was dramatizing Joey's indignant brawl with Salvy, which throws the viewer permanently into his corner just as the character is preparing to disappear almost entirely from the movie. This is not to suggest that the filmmaker was without a road map; he knows precisely where he's going. But the resulting, guard-down (though gloved) beating he invites from his Robinson, no matter how brilliantly filmed (place it in the top five edited sequences in the history of the medium, and no one's griping), is just not sufficient enough to atone for LaMotta's misdeeds. And, with the loaded, slo-mo cleansing of the back and torso with the bloody sponge complemented by the trainer mending LaMotta's face as if performing a blessing, and the arms-splayed crucifixion on the ropes, that's precisely what Scorsese's hoping to accomplish.

What's left is the ugly, pudgy fall, staged a little north of Hell in Florida where a retired LaMotta and Vickie relocate with their kids. Jake opens a bar, the management of which will tease out his basest inclinations, finally cost him his marriage, and land him in jail. By film's end, LaMotta's made it back to New York, but only as a pathetic cabaret performer cracking unfunny jokes, mumbling lifeless recitations of memorable stage and screen monologues, and attempting a laughably unearned, sidewalk reconciliation with a mortified Joey (the tenderness brilliantly undermined by the intrusive crinkling of a brown paper bag).

*          *          *

As an emotional journey, the saga of Jake LaMotta is unenlightening and unrewarding. So, what does it say about Scorsese that the only way he could revitalize his love for filmmaking was viewing life through the malicious gaze of this hateful loser? That one winds up shrugging at the question is a testament to the ecstatic celebration of the form that is Raging Bull (if the fights are Scorsese getting drunk on cinema, then the Florida chapter is the hangover). Stylistic exercises devoid of successfully integrated thematic content can sustain themselves, compelling with their form while simultaneously repelling with their content (e.g. Apocalypse Now or De Palma's Scarface).

And this is not a dubious achievement. In some ways, Raging Bull is morally preferable to Goodfellas for being far less seductive; LaMotta is as he was, while the dramatized Henry Hill hardly squares with the drug-addicted idiot of real life. This realization makes it easier to forgive Scorsese his inadvisable pretending to the throne of Bresson that turned off several leading critics. Forget the shoehorned piety and drink deep the chiaroscuro majesty of Michael Chapman's black-and-white cinematography, so haunting in the smoky boxing arenas, yet jarring and nasty in the light of day when LaMotta emerges from the dark confines of a midday drunk in his bar. (Chapman didn't win the Oscar either, though that had more to do with the great Geoffrey Unsworth dying before getting to finish Polanski's Tess). Or the great Thelma Schoonmaker deftly cutting from a coked-up undercranked charge to the blinding sizzle of a flashbulb to a still frame of a triumphant LaMotta; a logic defying series of edits as violent as any blood-spurting gash in the picture. (Seriously, who would ever think to string those shots together like that?) Or the performances, led by De Niro's physically insane mimicry, which, in some ways, is bettered by the wounded disappointment of Pesci and the quiet manipulation of Moriarty.

Technical greatness pours forth from every frame of Raging Bull; there are few films like it because there are few directors skilled enough to balance the utterly profane with matchless proficiency. But outside of its form, it's a mistake to take much from it: boxing, while violent, is nowhere near as bloody as it's depicted here; serial abusers are not terribly fascinating characters; and subjecting oneself to drubbings is not a way to get right with your loved ones or the universe.

The most telling moment as to where the director's heart lies comes at the very end of the picture, where he quotes the Book of John to inform his recently deceased film professor that now he "can see." Raging Bull is Martin Scorsese's salvation; the matter of Jake LaMotta's deliverance is left to God.

*          *          *

MGM Home Entertainment presents Raging Bull in a two-disc Special Edition that should satisfy fans of the director and the film. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is damn near flawless, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is wisely mixed to avoid betraying the limitations of its antique source.

Extras start on Disc One with three feature-length commentaries, the first with Scorsese and Schoonmaker, which is easily the best. As always, Scorsese is a willing yakker, but Schoonmaker knows how to nudge in with her insights, making for an informative and entertaining listen. The second is a crowded cast-and-crew track, featuring producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, music supervisor (and former lead guitarist for The Band) Robbie Robertson, actors Theresa Saldana and John Turturro, and sound designer Frank Warner. The third track is the most nettlesome, featuring the "storytellers" Mardik Martin, Paul Schrader and, as his nephew Jason Lustig triumphantly calls him, "the great Jake LaMotta." Martin and Schrader are well worth listening to, but the loquacious LaMotta is a bit too rehearsed, and he seems to have rationalized his wife's behavior and background, at least as he begins fulminating during his post-championship explosion. Mostly, though, he's just a bit too cheerful. Schrader says it best: "Jake is just tickled pink that this film took him from being a figure of sports trivia into a well-known historical boxer."

Disc Two features four brand new featurettes that are well above average. "Before the Fight" (26 min.) deals with the pre-production process starting with De Niro's discovery of the book and all the way up to casting. "Inside the Ring" (14 min.) deals exclusively with the filming of the fight sequences and is a must for anyone with even a passing interest in the technical end of moviemaking. (It's cool to at last see how they achieved the heat distortion effect during the second Robinson bout.) "Outside the Ring" (27 min.) covers everything else, revealing how they got away with a risky black-and-white production (MGM was too busy imploding over Heaven's Gate), and other nifty anecdotes (Teamsters shot the color home movie footage). "After the Fight" (15 min.) gets into post-production, which is where sound editor Frank Warner worked his wizardry (most interesting factoid: He burned his negatives at the end of every production).

The other featurettes are solid, including the somewhat redundant "The Bronx Bull" (27 min.), which includes outside critical perspective and lots o' LaMotta. "De Niro vs. LaMotta" is a neat little shot-by-shot comparison that shows how perfectly the actor imitated the real life Bull. The vintage newsreel "La Motta Defends Title" features LaMotta narrowly surviving his first title defense. Finally, there's an original theatrical trailer, as well as previews for other MGM titles.

— Clarence Beaks

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