It was like nothing I had ever seen... That was my initial reaction after watching Martin Scorsese's 'Raging Bull' for the first time during its 1980 theatrical release. As a dedicated student of film history at Northwestern University, I was well-versed in the styles of such lauded auteurs as Hitchcock, Ford, and Hawks, but Scorsese told the tale of boxer Jake La Motta with such bold style and invention, seamlessly combining grit and elegance, I knew I had just witnessed the work of a modern master. Like La Motta himself, Scorsese pummeled me with an almost non-stop barrage of breathtaking cinematic punches, but unlike the fighter's battered opponents, I exited the ring feeling exhilarated. Rarely, if ever, had I seen such total command of the medium, such muscular enthusiasm on screen, and I was awed by it. When 'Raging Bull' lost that year's Best Picture Oscar to the fine but painfully pedestrian and oh-so-mainstream family drama, 'Ordinary People,' and the renegade Scorsese lost the Best Director award to industry darling Robert Redford, my sense of outrage and disappointment knew no bounds. It certainly wasn't the first time the Academy got it wrong, but rarely did the oversight seem so glaring, the snub so overt. Once again, art lost to commerce, an edgy film fell to a safe one, and glossy upper-middle-class ideals beat the raw truth of the street. (As you can tell, it's been 30 years and I still haven't completely gotten over it.)
If you read my review of 'Shutter Island,' you know I'm an unabashed, unapologetic Scorsese fan, but even someone who's lukewarm about the director has to appreciate the supreme and undeniable artistry of 'Raging Bull.' Is it a pleasant story? No. Are the characters vulgar and crass? Yes. One may not enjoy viewing the film from a narrative standpoint, but the construction, presentation, and attention to detail, not to mention the performances, make it a mesmerizing movie from start to finish. Even after three decades, the fight scenes, distinguished by quick edits, off-kilter angles, slow and fast motion photography, 180-degree sweeps, and indelible images of brutal, blood-spurting blows, retain their dazzling visual and visceral impact. Yet people often forget that for every frame of swagger in 'Raging Bull,' there's one of nuance. Such moments, on the surface, may seem like throwaway bits of exposition, but over repeated viewings they engender as much admiration as the flashy ones, because they're completely natural.
'Raging Bull,' at its core, is an agonizing study of self-destruction and, ultimately, survival. Blessed with superior ability, La Motta (Robert De Niro) bulldozes his way through the ranks to become a dominant force in the boxing arena, but outside the ring he's like a caged animal, and struggles to contain his inner beast. A man of massive appetites - for food, sex, money, power, and respect - he indulges his vices while trying to maintain his athletic edge, but his pigheaded, abusive nature, Cro-Magnon ideals, and destructive mental demons (the most damaging of which are jealousy and paranoia) sabotage him at every turn. In the ring, it's often tough to determine whether he's fighting his opponent or fighting himself. And the battles he wages aren't always for titles and glory; they're often to prove a private point, appease the mob, or serve as a warped form of self-flagellation for the reckless and hurtful way he's lived his life.
From the opening title sequence - slow-motion, long-shot footage of a sparring De Niro with classical music underscoring - Scorsese sets the tone. This is a grand story, operatic in scope and structure, one of majesty and tragedy. It begins with an overweight, grotesque La Motta rehearsing a Shakespearean monologue in his nightclub dressing room in 1964. Then the clock rolls back to 1941, and we see the lean, mean Jake, the young bull in his prime, rarin' to go, anxious to pound another human's flesh until it bleeds. His loyal brother Joey (Joe Pesci) works tirelessly to promote and protect him, but it's a thankless task, while a comely, platinum-blonde 15-year-old named Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) catches Jake's eye, and he leaves his wife to pursue her. Sexually, they're a combustible combination, and emotionally, she's a fiercer adversary than some of the patsies he fights in the ring, yet his lack of trust and innate insecurities take a devastating toll on their relationship.
'Raging Bull' is often crude and in-your-face, but it's also poetic and eloquent in a way few films are. Scorsese masterfully merges the boxing and domestic sequences, so we get a firm grasp on La Motta's conflicting universes. The black-and-white photography - which always looks realistic, never stylized - and striking period detail allow him to flawlessly evoke the 1940s and '50s. And in a stroke of genius, he uses color film stock just once during a brief home-movie sequence to heighten the humanity of his characters and remind us they are, in fact, real people. Scorsese also employs still images to add impact, and pushes the erotic envelope with an extreme close-up love scene that further emphasizes Jake's animalism.
Long before DiCaprio, De Niro was Scorsese's actor of choice, and though the pair have made a number of excellent films together, 'Raging Bull' is arguably their crowning collaborative achievement. De Niro gives everything he has to the role, ballooning to an almost unrecognizable size to believably represent the obese, middle-aged Jake, and inspiring a generation of actors to transform themselves for the sake of their art. His fierce portrayal, however, is so much more than massive weight gain. De Niro embodies La Motta, embracing his brutality, ego, and unrefined charm. Yet despite the part's showy nature, the actor's finest moments are ones of quiet introspection and painful regret, and it's a tribute to De Niro's uncompromising work that we don't end up pitying Jake; we see him merely for what he is and admire his ability to survive.
Pesci, as always, makes a terrific foil for De Niro, but here seems less manic and more genuine than he would in future roles. The real surprise, though, is Moriarty, whose Oscar-nominated work I have come to more fully appreciate over the years. Her sullen, pouty attitude, feline sexuality, and fiery temper bring Vickie to brilliant life, and even her nonchalant, throwaway line readings complement her character. For someone with no previous acting experience, it's quite a performance.
And 'Raging Bull' is quite a film. Artistic, influential, often gut-wrenching, it inspired a generation of moviemakers and opened audiences eyes to the medium's true capabilities. Over the years, Scorsese's style has been copied and technology has given directors more freedom to realize their fantastic visions, so those new to 'Raging Bull' may wonder what all the fuss is about. But lest we forget, like the movie's tortured hero, 'Raging Bull' is an American original, a robust, visually stunning portrait of fury and passion by one of the finest directors the film industry has ever produced. It may not have received the gold statuette from the Academy, but it sets the gold standard, and will always be considered a masterpiece.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 30th anniversary edition of 'Raging Bull' comes packaged in an attractive white slipcase with raised lettering and a slightly different portrait of De Niro than the one that graced the cover of the previous Blu-ray edition. The two-disc set sits inside a standard case and contains both 1080p and 480p versions of the film on a Blu-ray disc and DVD, respectively. Four new featurettes and a vintage TV clip of Cathy Moriarty on Johnny Carson's 'Tonight Show' have been added to the old supplemental package for this release. Audio options remain the same, except that a Russian track has been added and the Portuguese and Turkish tracks have been dropped. There are also Russian subtitles now, but no longer any subtitles in Portuguese, Turkish, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Thai. Upon insertion of the disc, a full-motion menu with music immediately comes up; no annoying trailers or studio promotions precede the film.
Anyone hoping for a remastered transfer for this 30th anniversary edition will be disappointed, as the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC effort looks identical to the previously released version. That said, there's really no reason why a remaster was necessary. 'Raging Bull' looked stellar in high definition back in 2008, and it still looks stellar today, with no glaring deficiencies spoiling the viewing experience. Michael Chapman's exceptional black-and-white photography exudes a wonderfully natural feel, full of texture and depth, but thankfully lacking that high-gloss, shadowy, studio look contemporary directors often employ when making black-and-white movies. Realism is the name of the game here, and the slightly overexposed, lower-contrast look during the domestic scenes really helps to immerse us in the film's gritty New York atmosphere.
When it's show time, though, the picture takes on lusher tones, with more intense blacks framing the fight scenes and the bright whites of the popping flashbulbs providing stunning accents. Clarity and detail are exceptional, beautifully capturing all the spurting fluids, greasy sweat, and shiny leather boxing gloves, so we feel like we're right there in the ring with the combatants. Close-ups in and out of the arena look striking, and the love scene between Jake and Vickie is so intimately shot and crisply rendered, we feel like a true peeping tom. Across the board, gray level variance is quite good, providing solid depth and presence, and the color sequence, though intentionally dulled, emits a lovely warmth.
Some scenes appear a tad softer than others, but such instances don't distract; on the contrary, they fit right in with the film's authentic 1940s feel. And despite the picture's (relatively) advanced age, only a few errant nicks and marks dot the print. On the whole, this is an excellent effort that infuses 'Raging Bull' with even more vitality and impact.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also identical to the one on the previous Blu-ray release, and it's quite a lively, involving sonic experience. The surrounds come alive most noticeably during the fight scenes when the teeming ambience of crowd noise nicely fills the room. Accents, such as flashbulbs and whistles, are vibrant and distinct, and some powerful bass action provides significant rumbles when punches are thrown and bodies hit the mat. Between De Niro, Pesci, and Moriarty, there's a lot of mumbling going on, so some bits of dialogue occasionally get lost, but for the most part, conversations are clear and easy to understand...even if you're not from New York! Sometimes the high end frequencies flirt a little too closely with distortion for my taste, but dynamic range remains solid, and mild stereo separation across the front channels widens the sound field somewhat. The classical music score also possesses fine fidelity, beautifully swelling and engulfing the action when called upon.
Given the film's age, one can't expect a state-of-the-art soundtrack, but the audio certainly delivers here, maximizing every opportunity and helping to make 'Raging Bull' as much of an immediate, involving experience as it ever has been.
All the supplements from the previous Blu-ray release have been ported over here, so those wishing to upgrade won't need to hang on to their old copies. The material is outstanding, and every element is well worth examining.
The "Director's Commentary" features Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (recorded separately), both of whom offer plenty of background information about the shooting of the film, the script, locations, and various technical issues. Scorsese points out the moment when De Niro broke Pesci's rib during a sparring sequence, discusses the casting of Cathy Moriarty, dissects the fight scenes, and analyzes Jake's character, while Schoonmaker addresses the sensuality that pervades Scorsese's work, the impact of the movie's sound, the lengthy Steadicam shot that would be a precursor to a more famous one in 'GoodFellas,' how the home movie sequence was constructed to look antiquated and realistic, and the particulars of her working relationship with Scorsese.
The "Cast & Crew Commentary" contains remarks from producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, actors Theresa Saldana and John Turturro, sound engineer Frank Warner, cinematographer Michael Chapman, music advisor Robbie Robertson, and casting director Cis Corman. Turturro's comments are especially charming, as he recalls his first appearance on film as an unbilled, glorified extra who sits at a nightclub table with De Niro and Pesci in one scene. Chapman chats about the challenges of shooting in black-and-white; Winkler and Chartoff credit the success of 'Rocky' with paving the way for 'Raging Bull'; Robertson quips that you can almost "smell the tomato sauce" coming off the Italian music; Saldana notes she originally auditioned for the role of Jake's first wife, and talks about Scorsese's intimate directing style; Corman relates the challenge of finding the right Vickie, and how she groomed the green Moriarty for the role; and Warner discusses how he manipulated and layered multiple sounds to make a single effect. All the participants make interesting observations, sharing anecdotes, describing their respective jobs and contributions, and recalling the creative energy that permeated the production. The differing perspectives keep the track involving and chugging along at a good clip.
Finally, the "Storyteller's Commentary" features the raging bull himself, Jake La Motta, along with his nephew, Jason Lustig (who acts as an interviewer), and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin (both recorded separately). La Motta, of course, is a fascinating figure, and it's a treat to hear him speak for himself, psychoanalyze himself, and reminisce about his background, personal life, and career. Through his remarks, we get a marvelous sense of his gregarious personality, and he shares captivating memories about his childhood, brother Joey, wife Vickie, and rival Sugar Ray Robinson. He also talks about his aversion to sex (or more specifically, orgasm) before fights, reflects on his jealousy regarding Vickie, pressures from the mafia, the fight he purposely (and regretfully) threw, and the title bout that meant so much to him. He tells a few jokes, too, recites the 'On the Waterfront' monologue used in the movie, and perhaps most revelatory of all (considering the film's abundance of foul language), professes that he doesn't use cuss words! Mardik talks about the challenge of "reaching for the truth" when adapting someone's life story, sifting through the exaggerations and tall tales that surrounded La Motta, the arduous task of developing the first draft of the script, Scorsese's initial disinterest in the project, and how actors seem to love to use the f-word on screen as often as possible. Schrader recalls how he became involved in 'Raging Bull,' the aspects of the story that stoked his passion, and some notable changes in the script.
'Raging Bull' stands as a remarkable cinematic achievement, an unqualified triumph for director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro, and one of the finest films of the past 50 years. Though it may not appeal to all tastes, this complex portrait of a tortured boxer packs solid punches on a number of levels. All the pieces of the puzzle - cinematography, editing, sound, screenplay, music, performances, and direction - snugly interlock to create a dazzling experience that grows richer and more meaningful with each viewing. Video and audio quality have not been upgraded since the last Blu-ray release, but remain excellent, and the few additions to the already substantial and absorbing supplemental package further enhance this top-flight release. If you already own 'Raging Bull' on Blu-ray, there's really no need to double dip, unless you really want the new extras. But if you haven't yet seen or don't own this milestone film, now is definitely the time to experience it. 'Raging Bull' is unquestionably a modern classic and deserves a prominent place in every film-lover's collection.