Pacing and maneuvering under his hooded, cheetah-print robe, comfortably lost in the fog of cigar smoke and sweat that is only punctuated by scattered flashbulbs bursting, like beacons from vanishing lighthouses promising salvation, Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) nimbly boxes alone, against his own shadow, as the opening credits of Martin Scorsese's thunderous masterpiece, Raging Bull, roll with the intermezzo from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana giving us one last ray of narrative sunshine. It's an image of piercing eloquence that disguises the endless physical and emotional punishment that Scorsese will inflict over the next two hours, but its poeticism also hints at the undertow of empathy that connects the pugnacious LaMotta directly to the young Scorsese and his leading man.
In familiar terms, what follows would be called a sucker punch, as we are vaulted to 1964, well over a decade following the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, to see LaMotta, fat and ugly but stocked with bravado as ever, preparing for his stand-up routine in a dank Manhattan night club. It's a brief moment, but it gives enough time for De Niro to utter the crucial, titular rhyme: “So give me a stage, where this bull here can rage.” For LaMotta, the boxing ring is a performance space and it's the first thing we see when Scorcese, working with his regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, cuts to 1941, where the “Bronx Bull” is receiving a pummeling from Jimmy Reeves. LaMotta fights back and Reeves, like the other men who have “defeated” LaMotta, only wins by TKO but it's enough to send LaMotta home spoiling for punishment, in this case from his younger brother, Joey (Joe Pesci in top form), who he goads into beating him with and without a dish towel covering his fist.
Indeed, LaMotta craves punishment in every form and you can spot the heft of Scorsese's own Catholic guilt in every inch of this masterwork. Every room of LaMotta's apartment offers a wooden cross or painting(s) that demands submission and salvation, which becomes further complicated with the arrival of poolside kitten Vickie (a superb Cathy Moriarty), a girl who Joey once took out and who will eventually become Jake's second wife. Vickie and Joey's courtship ended quickly but Vickie maintains a friendship with Salvy (Frank Vincent), a friend of Joey's and a worker for the local mafia boss, Tom (Nicholas Colosanto). Basing a lot of the visuals and communal aspects of the screenplay off of his own youth living off the Bowery, Scorsese sets up Tom as a grand allegory for cultural tradition, or even stereotypes, and makes him the eventual chief conspirator of LaMotta's ultimate sin, perhaps even a fall from grace.
Prior to this, LaMotta seems far more interested in the temptation of sin, fooling around with Vickie before a fight only to have to pour a pitcher of ice water on his erection afterward. His intimacy and release are saved for his fights with Marcel Cerdan, Laurent Dauthuille, Billy Fox, Tony Janiro, and, on numerous occasions, Sugar Ray Robinson, which are captured with visceral intensity and brutal artistry by Scorsese and his DP, the great Michael Chapman. It is his fight against Billy Fox in which LaMotta agrees to take a dive that Tom proposed in exchange for a title fight against Cerdan, who he easily defeats to become the Middleweight Champion. But success is closer to damnation than relief for a character like LaMotta, and when he's not torturing himself over the fact that he will never be the best since he will never face Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, he turns toward himself and his loved ones, causing his jealousy over Vickie to multiply tenfold.
LaMotta's struggles are practically Biblical, played out as Shakespearean tragedy, and not without their Faustian elements as well, but he is, after all is said and done, a stunning and dedicated athlete, an entertainer and an artist. With Vickie, he seeks only everlasting innocence, but in the ring and life, he seeks nothing as much as unattainable perfection at his craft. Scorsese, working from a script by Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader, itself based on LaMotta's memoir of the same name, mirrors LaMotta's emotional landscape through images of failed or flailing entertainments, whether it be in the form of a rained-out day at the pool, an aging stand-up comedian or the busted television that eventually causes LaMotta to make this classic inquiry to his brother: “You fuck my wife?” LaMotta's only moment of undiluted introspection is when he is alone in solitary confinement and begins to pulverize his knuckles, screaming and weeping, away from the public and the family onto which he so often projected his flaws.
It's now impossible not to see the correlation with Scorsese's craft, which was in question after the universally dismissed New York, New York, which also featured a protagonist, again played by De Niro, who showed a violent obsession with his art. He followed that film up with his excellent concert film, The Last Waltz, which came with its own rumors of dark, long nights fueled by copious drugs and Scorsese in fact only took on Raging Bull following a near-fatal overdose. It remains unquestionably the most lean and ferocious of his films, holds large sway as his best, and is in high contention for his most personal, rivaled only by Mean Streets. And, seeing as it is indeed a Scorsese film, there is nothing but joy to be found in decoding the mass amount of influences on hand, whether from singular films (Bresson's Pickpocket) or entire oeuvres (Kazan, Tourneur, Ford) and movements (the French and Italian New Waves). It is, however, ultimately Scorsese, distilled down to his essence as one of the foremost authorities on how the masculine identity is molded by cultural and societal boundaries and mindsets; a violent poet who uses repressed sexuality, guilt, ferocity, and confusion to investigate themes of mortality, social class, racism, duty, and family.
Despite these lofty themes, Raging Bull is characterized most prominently by its sensational physicality, if not its percolating homoeroticism, which quite simply wouldn't be there without De Niro's fearless and essential performance, which incorporated a transformative weight gain of 30 pounds to play LaMotta in the '60s. The actor was also the main reason the film got made, along with the fact that producer Irwin Winkler had been responsible for Rocky, a monumental hit, only four years earlier. Unlike Rocky, which was overwhelmingly praised for its inspirational arc, Raging Bull was initially undervalued and met with reviews that largely dismissed it for its violence and dark implications, though Roger Ebert was an adamant admirer from the get-go.
It's important to note that the film does not end on the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, which could conceivably be seen as the key moment of his public life. Scorsese goes onto depict the downward spiral that LaMotta faced after that final fight with Sugar Ray Robinson, including his weight gain, a bumpy career as a lounge owner and entertainer, his divorce from Vickie, charges of serving and fondling an underage girl and a gloriously awkward reunion with Joey in a New York parking garage. (LaMotta's stint as an actor is omitted but there are certainly comparisons to be drawn between Raging Bull and Robert Rossen's classic The Hustler, in which the pugilist made a cameo as a bartender.) De Niro and Scorsese, who both got into epic tears with Schrader over the trajectory and structure of the story, were dead-set on following LaMotta into the depths, if only to make that final round of shadowboxing that LaMotta uses as a preshow ritual in his dressing room hit with the full weight of what has transpired. A performer and an athlete has survived his tortures and like any memorable artist, his most prominent scars come from the wounds that were self-inflicted.
Fox has provided a spectacular 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of Raging Bull in all its peerless black-and-white glory, even if the image restoration doesn't look all that different from the transfer that was released roughly two years ago. The clarity here is astounding, with dark, saturated blacks and crisp whites with near-perfect balance on the gradation. Grays are likewise well maintained and the detailing of skin tones, hair, and clothing is unerringly strong. The audio transfer is equally impressive, keeping Mardik Martin and Paul Shrader's instinctual dialogue upfront and clear as a bell. The mixing, courtesy of Michael Evje, is upheld wonderfully, as Scorsese's patented mix of classical and pop music sounds brilliant, balanced with the atmospheric sounds of the working-class Italian neighborhood and New York City bustle that typify a large part of the film.
As befits one of the great narrative works of the 1980s, this disc is jam-packed with extras, starting with—count 'em—three separate audio commentaries, the best of which features only Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker discussing the genesis of the project and their thoughts on its form. Then there are more than a half-dozen featurettes covering topics as distinct as LaMotta's legacy in the boxing world, the influence of the film on promising young directors such as Richard Kelly and Stuart Cooper, and how Robert De Niro and Scorsese's working relationship started. But the mack daddy here is an 82-minute documentary, split into four parts, which covers nearly every facet of the production from its genesis to its critical reception and now-classic status. Newsreel footage of LaMotta, a theatrical trailer, and a DVD copy of the film are also included.
Raging Bull's second release on Blu-ray looks to be the essential version of Scorsese's masterwork, second only to the experience of seeing it on the big screen.