Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Raging Bull

Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 12/7/05 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Based on Jake LaMotta's biographical novel co-written with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage, Raging Bull is the story about the rise and fall of the middleweight boxing champion who succumbs to failure as due to the pressures of the world as well as life outside of the ring. Directed by Martin Scorsese and screenplay by Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader, the film is an exploration into a man who rises high only to undo himself as he deals with failure as it stars Robert de Niro as Jake LaMotta. Also starring Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana, and Cathy Moriarty. Raging Bull is a visceral yet harrowing film from Martin Scorsese.

The film is an exploration into the rise and fall of Jake LaMotta as he was once this fearless middleweight fighter in the early 1940s only to become a wreck of a man doing a comedy routine in 1964 as the film begins with this once revered man who is now a fat bum. In the course of the film, LaMotta is portrayed as a gifted fighter who is able to fight his opponents with great skill though he would lose a few matches. Some of which by decision much to the dismay of the people who knows how good LaMotta is. Outside of the ring, LaMotta is a very complicated man who doesn't treat people very well like his first wife Irma (Lori Anne Flax) while leaving all of the business matters to his young brother Joey (Joe Pesci). Once Jake falls for a 15-year old girl named Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) whom he would later marry, things would seem to go well. Yet, bad decisions in and out of the ring, paranoia, and jealousy would lead to his own undoing as he later becomes a retired fat man trying to become a stand-up comedian at his own club in the mid-1950s.

The classic rise-and-fall storyline is always done in some kind of formula but in the way Martin Scorsese and his writers Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin chose to approach it by making it into a simple character study. Going for a visually, poetic style of directing with hand-held cameras, freeze-frames, frame-speeds, and all sorts of unconventional style. Scorsese presents a beautiful yet harrowing tale of a boxer who had it all only to realize that he blew it. Overall, it's Scorsese's realistic take on drama that gives the movie a lasting quality from what goes on in the ring to what happens outside the ring. There's never a moment where the drama is over-the-top, especially in famous scenes where Jake asks Joey to hit him or the jail-cell scene in where Jake ponders why he's done this to himself.

While the film's dramatic moments is wonderfully done thanks to Scorsese's direction, a lot of the credit should go to the screenwriters, Martin and Schrader. Easy enough to follow along in their structure, the story pretty much is told in a simple yet stylized way from the domestic drama to everything that goes on in the ring. The first act of the story is Jake working his way into the top and the second act is where Jake reaches it only to find ways to blow it. The third act of the story isn't necessarily a boxing movie but instead becomes an aftermath of what happens when a boxer is done and becomes in what Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan's classic 1954 film On the Waterfront says "I could've had class, I could've been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum". That line itself pretty much sums up the failures of Jake La Motta who realizes what he's done in the end.

While Scorsese gets a lot of the credit for the film's presentation, Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin deserves equal credit for their realistic view on storytelling as well as the film's authentic dialogue. Especially in the film's spectacular boxing sequences which are some of the most beautiful and downright bloody images captured on film. With the real Jake La Motta serving as a consultant, the boxing sequences aren't just choreographed right down to its essential but also the camera movements and presentation including one sequence of a man getting knocked down with the camera falling down with him. Even in short sequences there's movements of freeze-frame shots, slow-motion angles, and everything.

It's not just Scorsese, La Motta, and the screenwriters who gets credit but some very important collaborators who capture the grit of what goes on in the ring. Cinematographer Michael Chapman's lighting and use of flashbulbs with the black-and-white photography is evocative in every frame to see, especially from the shots where the cameras would flash their bulbs and to what goes on in the ring with smoky air surrounding the fighters. While Chapman's other work on the film is filled with great, authentic moments, it's his work in the boxing ring that brings poetry to those images. Another person who is responsible for the boxing scenes is Scorsese's longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker who's fast-cutting style and uses of freeze-frames, slow speeds, and stylized tone of editing gives the boxing scenes a moment of horror and wonderful imagery. Even in the shorter sequences, there's a great style as it's a masterwork in the world of editing.

The sound work of Les Lazarowitz and Bill Nicholson add a lot of chaos to the ring from the anger and excitement to the crowds to the swift punches and swings of the boxers inside. Even at moments, the sound is so authentic with every punch, the audience couldn't help but wince and groan at every punch delivered. Make-up artist Michael Westmore also deserves credit not just for his work in the ring with the blood coming out of the faces but also the make-up for the over-the-hill Jake La Motta that shows the sadness of a man who fell from grace hard. Helping the film with its authentic look on the New York sequences outside of the ring is production designer Gene Rudolf along with art director Sheldon Harber for many of the film's bar scenes and nightlife of 1940s/1950s America while Rudolf also does the design of houses and boxing rings in many of the film's other sequences. Costume designers John Boxer and Richard Bruno also do amazing work on the film's costume, especially the dresses of the female actresses and the suits of all the male actors.

While the film features a lot of old music from the likes of Perry Como, Tony Bennett, and other singers of the time, many of the film's music is from the works of composer Pietro Mascagni, especially the film's opening orchestral score in the opening credits of Jake La Motta boxing alone. The music helps in what Scorsese wanted in terms of its dramatic effect and ode to nostalgia. Helping Scorsese with the use of music is former leader of the Band, Robbie Robertson who was Scorsese's leading music producer for several of his films during the 80s. Robertson deserves credit for placing the music on where it should be that helps the film with its authenticity.

Finally, there's the film's superb cast of actors that features great performances from the men who play many of La Motta's opponents, notably Johnny Barnes in the role of Sugar Ray Leonard. Also mentioned for their cameo roles are Martin Scorsese as a bar hand in the film's final scene and his father Charles as Tommy Como's friend as well as early appearances from Michael Badalucco as a soda-pop clerk and John Turturro as a guy in the table in the party scene where Jake sees Vickie. While Theresa Saldana and Lori Anne Flax had small roles as the respective wives of Joey and Jake, they definitely are memorable, especially Flax as Jake's volatile first wife. Nicholas Colasanto is excellent as the sleazy but charming mob boss Tommy Como with his wit and corruptive power. Frank Vincent is also amazing as the hard-nosed and nasty Salvy who likes to get things into trouble and it's a memorable role since Vincent is a well-known character actor.

In her film debut at only 18-years old, Cathy Moriarty gives an amazing, sprawling performance as the beautiful but frustrated Vickie. Moriarty brings a toughness and grace to her role while having great scenes with Pesci and de Niro while standing on her own. Making her character more complex, even towards the end of the film, Moriarty grows from a battered wife who has been sexually and socially neglected to a woman who has had enough and wants to move on. This is a wonderful performance from the always brilliant and funny Moriarty. Joe Pesci gives an amazing, fierce performance as Joey with his tough-minded business attitude and as a conscience-of-sorts for Jake despite the bad things he does for himself too. Whenever he's near Jake, Pesci always tells him what to do and what is right but we also see a real mean side as he goes ballistic in a famous fight scene against Frank Vincent. Though Pesci hasn't been around in the film world since the late 90s, he's an actor that no one can forget as he is truly one of Scorsese's finest actors.

Finally, there's Robert de Niro in a performance for the ages as Jake LaMotta. It's a performance that is an example into why de Niro is so revered as he showcases a man who is one tough son-of-a-bitch who is not willing to be knocked down in a fight eve if he has to lose. There's also this vulnerability that de Niro displays as he makes LaMotta human by showcasing the man's insecurities whether it's through violence or not wanting to give in to sex for different reasons. Once de Niro becomes the older LaMotta, we see a man who is nothing more than a shell of his former self as there's layers to the performance not just in his appearance but what's inside as it's definitely one unforgettable performance.

Raging Bull is an outstanding film from Martin Scorsese that features a magnificent performance from Robert de Niro. Along with a great supporting cast that includes Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent, and Cathy Moriarty as well as amazing technical work from Michael Chapman and Thelma Schoonmaker. The film is truly one of the most eerie portraits of a man who rises high and falls big as it is presented with such beauty and ugliness that captures the life of Jake LaMotta. In the end, Raging Bull is a phenomenal film from Martin Scorsese.

Martin Scorsese Films: (Who’s That Knocking on My Door?) - (Street Scenes) - Boxcar Bertha - (Mean Streets) - Italianamerican - Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore - Taxi Driver - New York, New York - American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince - (The Last Waltz) - The King of Comedy - After Hours - The Color of Money - The Last Temptation of Christ - New York Stories-Life Lessons - Goodfellas - Cape Fear (1991 film) - The Age of Innocence - (A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies) - (Casino) - (Kundun) - (My Voyage to Italy) - Bringing Out the Dead - (The Blues-Feel Like Going Home) - Gangs of New York - (The Aviator (2004 film)) - No Direction Home - The Departed - Shine a Light - Shutter Island - (A Letter to Elia) - (Public Speaking) - George Harrison: Living in the Material World - Hugo - The Wolf of Wall Street - (The Fifty Year Argument) - Silence (2016 film) - (The Irishman) - Killers of the Flower Moon - (An Afternoon with SCTV)

© thevoid99 2013

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

Good review Steve. One of the greatest character-studies of all-time, and Scorsese's best movie. I love Goodfellas and Casino just as much as the other dude, but this is his crowning-moment in my opinion.