Late to selling the jewels in a championship belt! A review of Raging Bull

Late to selling the jewels in a championship belt! A review of Raging Bull

Prologue by Gavin:

I love Ordinary People. That might seem a bit out of left field as we’re discussing Raging Bull, but to me Ordinary People and Raging Bull will be tied together because they were both nominated for the Oscar™ for Best Picture in 1980. As much as I love Ordinary People and despite the fact that I still cry when I watch it (damn you Robert Redford, Timothy Hutton and Judd Hirsch!), I don’t think it was the best picture from that year. In terms of cinema, filmic values, direction and individual acting performances and damn near anything else you want to use as a standard, Ordinary People is a fine film. Excellent even. Still, Raging Bull is better. The acting is better, the movie looks and feels more visceral and it is every bit as emotionally wrenching as Ordinary People.

[Editor’s note: So, uh, I guess I should see Ordinary People?]

I don’t recall exactly when I first saw the movie, but I was a teenager. I didn’t see it in the theatre because I was (barely) too young. But I know that when I rented it and watched it with friends, the fight scenes grabbed the youthful boy that was me and would not let me go. At that stage in my life, I only saw it as an action film intercut with scenes of an abusive asshole terrorizing the people closest to him. When Jake finally gets his shot at the championship and then has to take a dive, it didn’t really register with me. If it did register, I’m sure my opinion was “oh, you’re not so tough now are you? You can stand up to Vicki, but you can’t stand up to Coach from ‘Cheers,’ you scumbag?” (Like a lot of people, I was callow in my youth and thought I knew everything.)

Of course, as I grew older, I began to appreciate stuff in the movie that I could never have spotted or understood when I was younger. When I was eighteen, I never would have even considered that this movie is a powerful statement about reconciliation and forgiveness. The story has often been told that Martin Scorsese said that growing up, he had only two possible vocations open to him, priest or gangster, and that he apparently seriously considered the priesthood. His Christianity shines through in this move (as does a certain amount of his affection for gangsters). While I couldn’t possibly have seen this as a callow boy of eighteen, now that I’m an ostensibly grown-ass man of (cough-cough) years, it’s impossible for me to not see this aspect of it. I would suggest that this is, perhaps, one of the two most important American films on the subject of forgiveness and reconciliation, the other being Dead Man Walking.

[Editor’s note: So, uh, I guess I should see Dead Man Walking?]

I will be curious to see what Laura thinks about this aspect of the film. A lot of people are repelled by Jake LaMotta, and with good reason. He is a thug, a boor, abusive and totally unable to control his impulses, many of which are loathsome. In other words, he is, like me, a deeply flawed human being. I can’t identify with the things Jake did, but I can identify with having done things for which I don’t deserve to be forgiven but, for reasons totally beyond my understanding, I believe actually ARE forgiven. Don’t get me wrong; the sheer brutality of the fight scenes alone is positively balletic and are reason enough to watch the film (This is one man’s opinion. For every person who thinks the fight scenes are amazing, you will find at least one person completely repulsed by the violence. Somehow, and I can’t adequately explain this, the blood is made worse and more visceral because it appears in black and white.). That’s why the eighteen year-old version of me dug it as much as I did. If Scorcese had wanted to make a straight-up boxing picture, he could have done that and left it alone and made a fine film. But this story is so much more. The brutality of this movie, inside and outside the ring, are what make the redemption aspect of it so powerful.

One piece of trivia: Cathy Moriarty, who plays Vicki LaMotta, makes her film debut in this movie. Try to wrap your head around this as you watch: Cathy Moriarty was only nineteen years old when principal photography began.

LTTM review:

Jake La Motta: You didn’t get me down, Ray.

I make it a rule not to read the reviews my friends write before watching the movie. It makes sense that way, right? No spoilers, no outside effect on the way I view the movie. Just me and a film I should’ve seen a million years ago.

I don’t know about Raging Bull. I liked it. It was fine. No, it was better than fine. It was pretty good. But as I read Gavin’s discussion of forgiveness and reconciliation, I feel like the eighteen-year-old Gavin. Maybe I missed something? To me, this movie was about a guy who was great at what he did but let a lot of things get in the way of being a decent human being.

I’ve seen many lists where Raging Bull is called the best sports movie ever (and it’s always in the top ten of the AFI best films list). I think that for me to enjoy a sports movie, I need to feel a strong connection to one of the characters. I loved Rocky, I loved Ray Kinsella (and Moonlight Graham and ESPECIALLY Shoeless Joe), I loved Norman Dale– shoot, I REALLY loved George Knox. This movie made me really respect Robert DeNiro as an actor– dude gained 60 pounds for this movie and in the first scene I actually thought he was Marlon Brando— but I didn’t feel much for the character besides thinking that he was a complete asshole. I don’t even like him that much as other Scorsese leads played by DeNiro. The connection, for me, wasn’t there.

Don’t get me wrong– this is a very good movie. But it’s not my favorite sports-related movie and it’s not even my favorite Scorsese. I think I missed a lot of the deeper meaning to the movie but I’m not even that interested in rewatching. I recommend seeing it once but it won’t be on my list of frequent repeats.

Face palm moment: Cathy Moriarty– I know her as the rude woman from Casper.

Cathy Moriarty– what a meanie!

Favorite part: The shoutout to On the Waterfront, which I watched as a part of this blog but never managed to review it. I should though because it’s probably one of my favorite movies I’ve watched as a part of this project.

Regrettable tardiness scale (out of 10): 5/10. I didn’t feel the connection I think most people have.


  • I’m worried that I’m going to sound like that Frank Zappa fan who is absolutely sure that you will LOVE Frank Zappa, I just have to find the right Frank Zappa song(s) for you to listen to. In other words THIS guy,4644/ . I understand why you won’t watch it again but I really wish you’d reconsider. Not anytime soon. I can’t watch it more than every few years myself, and I own the DVD. But this is the perfect application of that old metaphor about an onion and peeling back its layers. It may not have been my callow youth that prevented me from seeing what I (think I) saw, maybe it was just that, like a challenging book or music album, I kept listening/watching/reading just because I always thought there was more to see than the obvious.

    In the end, the reason I think that reconciliation is such a major component of this movie is because Jake finally sees himself for what we know him to be. A broken man who has caused so much pain that he doesn’t deserve to be reconciled with anyone but he is. Slowly and with a lot of effort. And while I think it’s a bit ambiguous as to whether his brother actually forgives him, I think that it’s clear they are on the road to that. Jake understands that he lived so much of his life like an animal (and the scene with him in jail shows him as a caged and feral one) that to find any of his humanity is a great gift. (I was going to say “a great blessing” and that would have been the correct usage, but I don’t want to come across as more religious than I am, which is, at least currently, not all that much.)

    All of that being said, I like your review because I always appreciate you challenging notions that other people hold on some of these films that are considered classics. A lot of people would simply say they liked it because they feel like they SHOULD like it and I really appreciate the fact that you don’t do that.

    I was also surprised that “did you f*ck my wife?” didn’t get a reference or face palm or something. That may be the biggest pop culture moment from the movie, although, again, I may simply be a fanboy.

  • Oh, and, yes, See “Ordinary People” and “Dead Man Walking.” Because you don’t have enough to do and haven’t gone far enough out of your way to be nice to me.

  • I’ve always been surprised by how universal the love for this movie seems to be – not because it isn’t great, but because it’s such an abrasive, confrontational experience. It’s certainly a keystone for understanding Scorsese’s views on tough-guy masculine identity (a theme which runs through most of his movies), but it feels more like Cassavetes than GOODFELLAS. It barely even qualifies as a sports movie!

    If you’re ever hankerin’ for a good boxing movie, check out the 1949 semi-noir THE SET-UP sometime. It was a direct inspiration for the boxing scenes in RAGING BULL and a terrific movie in its own right.

  • Pingback: Late to being a contender! A review of On the Waterfront | Late to the Movies

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