Note: Portions of this review include material from Jason Perez's HTF review of "The Martin Scorsese Film Collection" DVD release. The entirety of his review can be read here.
The Feature: 5/5
Filmmaker Martin Scorsese has developed quite an impressive body of work, including "Goodfellas," "Mean Streets," and "Cape Fear." In my opinion, "Raging Bull," which tells the somewhat fictionalized story of legendary pugilist Jake La Motta, stands head and shoulders above anything else Scorsese has done (even "Goodfellas," which I LOVE!). It is easily one of the most perfectly realized biographical films you will ever see. Bio-pics generally offer stale, lifeless factual accounts of a person's life or gloss over the more unsavory aspects of his or her persona. As such they either fail to entertain or offer an incomplete portrait of their subject. Fortunately, "Raging Bull" exhibits neither of these flaws, and tells the story of middleweight champion La Motta in such a compelling manner that it is impossible to turn away.
When the film opens it is 1941 and La Motta (Robert De Niro) is a rising star in the fight game, rapidly becoming one of the top contenders for the Middleweight Championship. In the first few years that follow, he wins some very big matches, including a highly anticipated bout against another boxing legend, Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes). But despite his legendary toughness and professional success, La Motta lacked the desire to play along with the criminals that controlled boxing, so he was denied a chance to fight for the title belt. La Motta was also one of the toughest S.O.B.s around, who not only beat his opponents, but embarrassed them. Unfortunately, the savage nature that propelled him into the upper echelon of the middleweight class also spilled over into his personal life, where he was almost as merciless to those around him – even though they were not his enemies. Ultimately, these tendencies caused large rifts between him and his lovely wife Vickie (a very young Cathy Moriarty) along with his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), who managed his career and was the one to introduce the two. Though La Motta had quickly fallen in love with Vickie, she ironically became the source of his greatest joy and most animalistic rage. The reason being that he was unbelievably insecure and could not get his mind around the possibility that a woman as vibrant and beautiful as "his" could remain faithful. As such, he was persistently bombarded by feelings that she was cheating on him – maybe even with Joey, his brother and most trusted ally. Sadly, La Motta proved incapable of rationally resolving these insecurities and things escalated to the point that he savagely beat his wife. His suspicions and behavior also showed Joey his worst side, leading to years of estrangement.
Though La Motta's personal life was a mess, his success in the ring was significant, leading to a shot at the middleweight crown. Unfortunately, in his first title match, Jake was required to take a dive against his opponent, Billy Fox. Realizing that he would have no serious future in boxing unless he complied, he agreed, but was not very convincing about it. The controversy lead to an investigation by the FBI, among others, which tainted his career and nearly resulted in a ban from the sport. Luckily, he was allowed to keep fighting, eventually winning the middleweight belt in 1949 from Marcel Cerdan. His reign at the top did not last long though, as he relinquished the title to Sugar Ray Robinson only two years later, in a bout that ultimately needed to be stopped after the 13th round.
At this point, Jake's career spiraled downwards very quickly and he hung up his gloves for good in 1954. However, since Scorsese was more interested in the man than his boxing career, we get to see 10 years into La Motta’s future, into a truly sad period. Indeed, after leaving the sweet science behind, Jake was still filled with rage and insecurity, only now he had no outlet for the harmful emotions. His poisonous thoughts and despicable actions ultimately rendered him a sad, broken shell of his former self. More specifically, only 10 years removed from his days as a champion boxer, Jake is a nearly penniless, severely out of shape ex-con who has ruined his relationship with his wife and children and is making ends meet with a two-bit nightclub routine.
Now as good a filmmaker as Scorsese is, he could not create a masterpiece like this alone. Indeed, if it were not for the persistence of De Niro, this movie may have never been made. And with regard to De Niro's turn as La Motta, what does one say? How can I add to the volumes of praise heaped upon his magnificent, utterly intense performance, and say anything that has not been said 1,000 times over in the quarter century since this film premiered? The man is easily one of the greatest actors of all time, and in an absolutely storied career, I would still rate his performance as La Motta as his most remarkable. The sheer level of intensity and dedication he brought to this role is absolutely amazing, taking great pains to ensure that while we never feel too much sympathy for him, we can at least understand the man and what drove him to do the things he did. Moreover, De Niro was so into this role that he went to great lengths to achieve the physical condition required for various stages of the film. For example, early in the film, De Niro is in prime physical condition, as a championship-caliber boxer should be, a result of training with La Motta for about a year before shooting. Conversely, as the obese, broken-down La Motta, De Niro ate like a glutton to gain over 50 pounds. Who else but De Niro would do this, merely because he thought a fat suit would not look right? In my view, the Best Actor Oscar De Niro received for his work was not only hard-earned, but also extremely well deserved. It is nothing short of a tour-de-force performance, perhaps the best by any actor…ever!
Supporting players Moriarty and Pesci are also superb in the film. Both were rewarded with Oscar nominations for their performances, which exhibit a lot of the same rawness and unbridled energy as De Niro's. For instance, Pesci plays Joey as a slightly more shrewd, outgoing, and caring version of his brother, who recognizes his brother's impending self-destruction, tries to prevent it, but to no avail. Moriarty is equally great, turning in a performance well beyond her years (she was about 17 at the time), playing a woman paralyzed by the fear of a brutal man she once loved and who was father to her children.
To sum things up, the performances in this film are almost great beyond description. Scorsese's direction is as sharp as razor wire and the film's style is no less magnificent! Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman chose to shoot the vast majority of "Raging Bull" on black-and-white stock (the re-created home movies are in color) and it proved to be an excellent decision. It made the film stand out at a time when theaters were glutted with boxing-themed movies and black-and-white had become the exception to the rule. The fight sequences benefited the most from the use of black and white stock (as well slow-motion photography), becoming more visceral, exciting, and stylish than they would have been in color. During the carefully staged fight sequences, a variety of visual tricks and camera angles give viewers a sense of La Motta's emotional state from fight to fight. Not only is Chapman's work first rate, so is editor Thelma Schoonmaker's, the brilliant editing helping bring Scorsese's realistic and detailed vision to the screen.
In the final analysis, Martin Scorsese's stylish, unrelenting, and deeply thought-provoking look at how a man's jealousy, obsessions, and inability to control his rage tarnished his life is an absolutely amazing motion picture. Although it is one of my personal favorites, I had not watched it in a while, which was fortunate because I was able to come in with a fresh perspective on the film and reacquaint myself with just how powerful the story and these performances are. This is not only one of the best motion pictures of the 1980s, but it belongs on the short list of the best motion pictures of all time! It's impeccable filmmaking from start to finish. -- Jason Perez
Video Quality: 4.5/5
The picture is accurately framed at 1.85:1 and presented in 1080p with the AVC codec. Black levels are deep and stable, though shadow detail is a bit limited due to some slight, but likely intentional, black crush. Contrast in general looks terrific though, accurately presenting the beauty and presence of Chapman's black-and-white cinematography. Grain structure looks preserved with no signs of filtering or noise reduction; edge enhancement or excessive digital sharpening is likewise non-existent, giving way to natural looking detail and clarity. The only real signs of the film's almost 30 years of age is a bit of debris and "sparkle." Fans of the film should be quite pleased.
Audio Quality: 3.5/5
The dialogue in the DTS-HD Master Audio mix isn't always intelligible. I often found myself straining to hear the lines, like during La Motta and Vickie's more intimate moments. Turning up the volume in the quieter scenes led to being overwhelmed by any subsequent fight sequences. I expect first-time viewers will be turning to the subtitles to catch everything. The activity in the surrounds is decent though, being the most active during the visceral boxing matches with crowd noise and atmospheric effects, though the quality of the effects themselves seem a bit dated now. LFE is also non-existent, but there's always sufficient low frequency weight backing La Motta's unrelenting body blows.
Special Features: 5/5
All the disc-based supplemental items have been carried over from the 2005 special edition DVD, though the sole item to be upgraded to high definition is the theatrical trailer. Content review by Jason Perez.
The first audio commentary features Scorsese and Schoonmaker, both of whom offer a lot of insight into the film. Scorsese does most of the talking, but Schoonmaker chimes in frequently to discuss a variety of things related to the editing of the film and how certain shots were achieved. There are some pauses here and there, and the speakers' comments were recorded separately, but all in all, this is an excellent commentary. Some of the highlights are:
- A discussion about the source of inspiration for the film's title sequence.
- Insight into the various methods used to give viewers a sense of La Motta's frame of mind, including slow motion photography, blurred images, and carefully choreographed camera movements.
- Discussions about the scenes in the film that were improvised and about how the film is not necessarily an accurate depiction of the real La Motta’s life but an effort to stay true to the character conceived by the filmmakers.
- Scorsese talking about the casting process, including a detailed account of why he wanted the then very young (and relatively inexperienced) Cathy Moriarty to portray Vickie.
Like the first commentary, there is an awful lot of detail here, most of which is touched on in the featurettes. However, this information is expanded on greatly here, as in the case of Chartoff and Winkler talking about how United Artists was reluctant to make the film, so they had to play every angle, including suggesting that a sequel to "Rocky" be made, so that "Raging Bull" would be green-lit. Chapman also goes into far more depth about the reasons the film was shot in black-and-white, and Robertson talks a lot about his non-formulaic approach to scoring the film, which included him having to "fix" a piece of music Scorsese really wanted attached to a particular scene in the film.
The final audio commentary includes writers Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader, La Motta, and La Motta's nephew, Jason Lustig. The commentary has a very different flavor from the first two and is immensely interesting. Basically, Lustig serves as a moderator, asking a variety of questions of his uncle, such as "How and when did you start fighting?" and "When did you start getting pressure from the mob?" He also gets his uncle to talk about the process of penning his autobiography and about the intense training sessions that he put De Niro through. It is all interesting stuff and you will want to hear it.
The commentary also features the thoughts of writers Martin and Schrader, who adapted Jake’s story for the screen. As is the case with the other commentaries, their input was recorded separately and edited together. You can expect to hear a lot about the difficulties the duo faced during the writing process and how it took several drafts of the script to get things right.
It is a close call, but I found this track to be the best of the three! Primarily, this is because the real "Raging Bull" got to give his take on things and talk about the differences between the film and his life. The stories Martin tells about his research are also very interesting. Come to think about it, the whole darn commentary is pretty fascinating, so if you have a fondness for the film make sure and give it a listen!
"Raging Bull: Before the Fight": "Before the Fight" is a fascinating 26-minute documentary that covers the film's writing, casting, and pre-production processes. There is quite a bit of detail here, so all but the most hardcore fans should learn something from those interviewed, which includes producers Chartoff and Winkler, De Niro and Pesci, and Scorsese, among others. Some of the many highlights are: Scorsese discussing the genesis of the film, the writing process, and how he was initially not interested because "he doesn’t understand sports;" Schrader's revelations about adapting La Motta's autobiography and some ideas that were scrapped during production; and Scorsese talking about how poor his mental state was before making the film and how he used it to regain his passion for filmmaking.
"Raging Bull: Inside the Ring": "Inside the Ring" not only offers viewers an in-depth look into the choreography and filming of the brutal fight sequences, but also reveals how the film came to be shot in black-and-white. Again, much of this information comes in the form of interviews. Schoonmaker discusses how each shot was designed to carry viewers into the next shot and breaks down some of the tricks used to give viewers a sense of La Motta's emotional state during different fights. As was the case with the first documentary, there is a lot of good information here, including discussions of some of the film's most important themes, so it is well worth the 15 minutes it will take to view it.
"Raging Bull: Outside the Ring": Running over 27 minutes, "Outside the Ring" takes viewers behind the scenes through stories that chronicle the experiences of those who made this great film. More specifically, Scorsese, Schoonmaker, De Niro, and others discuss the grueling 10-week shooting schedule for the fight scenes, the way other sequences evolved during the shoot, and the purpose of the home movies in the film, which were painstaking re-creations of La Motta’s own home movies! Like its companion pieces, this documentary is a thoughtful and informative retrospective look at very important aspects of the film and is well worth a viewing.
"Raging Bull: After the Fight": "After the Fight," which runs over 15 minutes, gives viewers a look at Frank Warner’s wonderful sound design and the importance of the film's music. The piece also addresses the fact that the film was not very well received initially. Indeed, one critic wrote that the picture should not be distributed! I wonder how that person feels about making that statement now…
"The Bronx Bull": This 28-minute "making of" documentary features interviews with La Motta and Schoonmaker, among others. It rehashes some of the things talked about in the four previous documentaries. Some of the highlights include how De Niro’s persistence led to the film getting made; La Motta discussing De Niro's dedication to training (he feels De Niro could have fought professionally), and Schoonmaker revealing some of the tricks used to give viewers a sense of La Motta's state of mind during certain fights. Again, much of this information is already covered in the other featurettes, but it is still good enough to warrant checking out, especially since we get to hear from La Motta himself.
"De Niro vs. La Motta": It is short, but this two-minute comparison of De Niro and La Motta in action in the ring is one of my favorite supplemental items. It really is impressive to see how closely De Niro was able to mimic the champ's moves!
"La Motta Defends Title": This cool extra consists of old newsreel footage of La Motta in action, defending his title. Unfortunately it is only one minute long.
Theatrical Trailer (2m09s): In high definition with stereo audio.
The Feature: 5/5
Video Quality: 4.5/5
Audio Quality: 3.5/5
Special Features: 5/5
Overall Score (not an average): 4.5/5
A highly regarded and expertly crafted biography film gets an excellent video transfer, a decent audio presentation and an engaging special features package that includes all the items from the previous DVD release.