99. EMPIRE MAGAZINE GREATEST: Raging Bull

January 4, 2018

Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana, Frank Vincent
Runtime: 129 Minutes

 

Original UK Release: 1981

 

★★★★☆

 

Raging Bull sees the reunion of the collaborative creative team behind Taxi Driver. Inspired by the true story of former middleweight boxer, Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), we see our swollen, fuming lead figure through the rise and fall of his career in the ring. Similar to Travis Bickle, Jake sees himself as more than he is; an apparent underdog hero fighting his way to the top of a system in which he’s just not welcome or even all that well suited.

 

He’s a violent, distraught and broken man who just wants any excuse to roar at the world. It’s a deliberation on the effect that fighting and aggression can have on an individual so entrenched within the sporting climate, and how that can destroy a life from the inside out without realising so. This is all entirely of his own accord as he battles his own demons face on in more ways than the physical manner of conflict. There’s a bleak distinction between the past and the present, the timeline and structure of the film punctuated by some of the most significant matches of his career, and paints a grim picture of his interpretation of his own gorging Italian-American heritage.

 

Somehow, De Niro still manages to make Jake’s struggle believable with a physical and emotional performance that requires everything of the actor, between the lean figure of his better years and his puffy disfigured frame after his career is over. Joe Pesci is astonishing as brother and handler Joey, while Cathy Moriarty as his longsuffering wife exemplifies the peril of the female space in a cruel and masculine environment.

 

Michael Chapman’s incredible monochrome photography brings a breathtaking visual beauty to the dreamlike staging of the fight scenes and the dejection of Jake’s private life. The boxing matches feel like something that we are sharing with Jake, his own personal vision of his triumphs and failures played over and over in glorified detail. Martin Scorsese’s direction and editing are very different to his former efforts, being calmer and more precisely and powerfully cut and by allowing the film to breathe in and out. It’s an effectively controlled achievement that chronicles the physical bouts and trials of Jake’s physical tests like a ballet of motion and the occupation of space as an act of violent defiance in itself.

 

This is a daring, upsetting and commanding boxing picture that operates as the antithesis to the sustained Rocky legend of sports cinema; violent and angry but beautiful and slow, its contradictions compliment it even if it isn’t to everyone’s taste as a pensive experience.

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