Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #71
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci
I have a few notable biases in film, none of which are terribly logical, but all of which are very real. Perhaps the strongest is my general distaste for boxing pictures. In my estimation, since I don't like boxing, and I don't really see the influence of the sport on culture or in my day-to-day life, a movie about it isn't something I want to see. "But Brad," you might protest, "You don't live in the Old West. Hell, you've never been west of Missouri. Why do you like Westerns?" Hey, I came right out and said my biases were illogical, so deal with it.
Fortunately, this bias didn't really enter into the equation when I watched Raging Bull last night. It's a movie about a boxer, true, but it isn't really a movie about boxing. We see footage from a number of fights, but the plot rarely hinges on their outcome. No, this is a film about the life of Jake LaMotta (played by Robert De Niro in an Oscar-winning role), a middleweight contender who is as wild outside of the ring as he is inside it. He spends most of his time with his beautiful wife (Cathy Moriarty) and his older brother Joey (Joe Pesci), but he treats them like utter shit. After a particularly vicious fight with Joey, they part ways. Jake – and, in turn, De Niro – gains sixty pounds after his boxing career comes to an unceremonious close. He opens a bar and starts doing terrible stand-up comedy for ten people. The film closes as it opens, with an overweight LaMotta sitting in his dressing room and soliloquizing about his present situation. He – or, more accurately, cinema-obsessed director and uncredited writer Martin Scorsese – offers a line from Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront to sum up his fall from grace. "I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am." It's become cliché to quote that line since, but here, it's tragic and self-aware and beautiful, and it makes the film better.
So perhaps I overcame my boxing movie bias by watching Raging Bull. Or perhaps I've been overcoming it along with a number of my other biases by simply doing this blog. In any case, I loved this film. I'd put it very nearly on par with the excellent Taxi Driver in the canon of Scorsese-De Niro collaborations, and I'd rank it higher than any other boxing movie I've seen – a list which still excludes Rocky, for the record. Carried by strong direction and two phenomenal performances by De Niro and Pesci, Raging Bull deserves all the acclaim that it has garnered in the three decades since its release.
The Good: De Niro's performance is brilliant. I'm still astonished that he put on sixty pounds to play a character for one movie. That's dedication. Joe Pesci also gives a better performance than I've ever seen from him. Unfortunately, it's overshadowed by De Niro.
The Bad: Can I say that I don't care for the way it's marketed? Like Million Dollar Baby, Raging Bull is a movie that is about a boxer, isn't about boxing, and is advertised as if it's a movie version of Pay-Per-View fight night.
The Skinny: I'm probably down with Top 100. The exact location on the list I'm not as certain of.