Top 100 Movie Review: No. 004 – Raging Bull (1980)

Ranked 004 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017).
Watched movie during the month of August 2020.

Cast: Robert De Niro (Jake La Motta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie La Motta), Joe Pesci (Joey La Motta), Frank Vincent (Salvy), Nicholas Colasanto (Tommy Como)
Directors: Martin Scorsese
My rating: 8.0 / 10

In 1964, an aging, overweight Italian American, Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), practices a comedy routine.  We then flashback to 1941 and La Motta is in a major boxing match against Jimmy Reeves, where he suffered his first loss. 

Jake’s brother, Joey La Motta (Joe Pesci), discusses a potential shot for the middleweight title with one of his Mafia connections, Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent). Some time thereafter, Jake spots a fifteen-year-old girl named Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) at an open-air swimming pool in his Bronx neighbourhood. He eventually pursues a relationship with her, even though he is already married.

In 1943, Jake defeats Sugar Ray Robinson, and has a rematch three weeks later. Despite the fact that Jake dominates Robinson during the bout, the judges surprisingly rule in favour of Robinson and Joey feels Robinson won only because he was enlisting into the Army the following week. By 1945, Jake marries Vickie.

Jake constantly worries about Vickie having feelings for other men, particularly when she makes an off-hand comment about pretty boy Tony Janiro, Jake’s opponent in his next fight. His jealousy is evident when he brutally defeats Janiro in front of the local Mob boss, Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto), and Vickie ensuring Janiro is not really pretty.

As Joey discusses the victory with journalists at the Copacabana, he is distracted by seeing Vickie approach a table with Salvy and his crew. Joey speaks with Vickie, who says she is giving up on his brother. Blaming Salvy, Joey viciously attacks him in a fight that spills outside of the club. Como later orders them to apologise, and has Joey tell Jake that if he wants a chance at the championship title, which Como controls, he will have to take a dive first.

In a match against Billy Fox, for which La Motta was warned by the Boxing Commission not to take a dive, La Motta briefly pummels his opponent.  However than Jake does not even bother to put up a fight not even pretending to be taking the fight seriously. He is suspended shortly thereafter from the board on suspicion of throwing the fight, though he realises the error of his judgment when it is too late. He is eventually reinstated, and in 1949, wins the middleweight championship title against Marcel Cerdan.

A year later, Jake asks Joey if he fought with Salvy at the Copacabana because of Vickie. Jake then asks if Joey had an affair with her; Joey refuses to answer, insults Jake, and leaves. Jake directly asks Vickie about the affair, and when she hides from him in the bathroom, he breaks down the door, prompting her to sarcastically state that she had sex with the entire neighbourhood (including his brother, Salvy, and Tommy Como). Jake angrily walks to Joey’s house, with Vickie following him, and assaults Joey in front of Joey’s wife Lenora and their children before knocking Vickie unconscious.

After defending his championship belt in a gruelling fifteen-round bout against Laurent Dauthuille in 1950, he makes a call to his brother after the fight, but when Joey assumes Salvy is on the other end and starts insulting and cursing at him, Jake says nothing and hangs up. Estranged from Joey, Jake’s career begins to decline slowly and he eventually loses his title to Sugar Ray Robinson in their final encounter in 1951.

By 1956, Jake and his family have moved to Miami. After he stays out all night at his new nightclub there, Vickie tells him she wants a divorce (which she has been planning since his retirement) as well as full custody of their kids. She also threatens to call the police if he comes anywhere near them.

La Motta is later arrested for introducing under-age girls to men in his club. He tries and fails to bribe his way out of his criminal case using the jewels from his championship belt instead of selling the belt itself. In 1957, he goes to jail, sorrowfully questioning his misfortune and crying in despair. Upon returning to New York City in 1958, he happens upon Joey, who forgives him but is elusive.

Now back in 1964, Jake now recites the “I coulda been a contender” scene from the 1954 film On the Waterfront, where Terry Malloy complains that his brother should have been there for him but is also keen enough to give himself some slack. After a stagehand informs him that the auditorium where he is about to perform is crowded, Jake starts to chant “I’m the boss” while shadowboxing.

What’s to Like
The amazing actors at the top of their games, the visuals.

What’s not to Like
The physically and emotionally manipulative protagonist.

Raging Bull is a biographical sports drama based on Jake La Motta life story as outlined in his 1970 memoir Raging Bull: My Story.  The visuals are truly stunning, the fights are well choregraphed and you will be engaged in the story.  Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, and Joe Pesci are all outstanding in this film.  It is great to see both De Niro and Pesci at the top of their games.

The mafia control of the fight game in the 1940s and 1950s makes for some interesting historical insights.

While it is initially possible to admire Jake La Motta’s stand on wanting to win the title on his owns merits he does eventually take a dive even when he knows the Boxing Commission is watching closely.  He also cheats on his first wife, hits his second wife, beats his brother over (incorrect) jealously fears and basically destroys his career.  I guess you could see La Motta’s book as a way of explaining his behaviour and including his shortcomings as at least some acknowledgement of his wrong doing.  

Still this is a very strong film well worth watching.

Academy Awards

  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Robert De Niro) – Winner
  • Best Film Editing – Winner
  • Best Picture – nominee
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Joe Pesci) – nominee
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Cathy Moriarty) – nominee
  • Best Director (Martin Scorsese) – nominee
  • Best Cinematography – nominee
  • Best Sound – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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