by Jay Seaver
I don't like boxing. I can admire the dedication and effort it takes to be a good boxer, but it takes dedication and effort to do anything well, so why not expend it on learning how to do something nobler than beating another person unconscious? Although I'm certain that there are many big-hearted boxers, the sport comes across as a thug's activity, with the rampant corruption doing little to make things look better. So I guess it's fitting that Raging Bull is basically a movie about a thug.It's a polished movie about a thug, no question. The black and white photography is unwaveringly excellent, the actors deliver fine performances, and everything that happens rings true, which isn't always a given even for a biography. But when you get right down to it, Jake La Motta is a big, dumb, petty, violent bruiser of a man, and as such men are wont to do, he squanders his success and winds up making those around him miserable. Where's the interest in that almost inevitable progression, other than the formidable craft of Martin Scorsese and his cast and crew? That's not trivial by any means, but they bring it to a story and a character that is interesting for little other than confirming a pessimistic view of human nature.
"I feel bad about not liking this much, but it truly doesn't do much for me."
That character, Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), is a middleweight fighter, and not bad at it. He's not the smartest, but he's of the breed that refuses to quit and refuses to sell out. That makes it hard for him to get fights in his native New York, but he'll deal with that. It makes life more difficult for his brother and manager Joey (Joe Pesci), who not only has to try to book Jake but also craves the acceptance of the community's powerful members, including the gangsters. He meets a girl, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), who figures that the big ox has potential and eventually becomes his wife. His career will have its ups and downs until he finally wins the championship, gets fat and bloated, and falls far faster than he rose.
Fame, apparently, is as addictive as it is corrosive. The Jake LaMotta we initially meet isn't monstrous, and someone who just wants to do his thing without kowtowing to the mob can't be all bad. But as time goes by, he becomes angrier and more paranoid, and when his boxing career ends, he can't bear to be out of the spotlight, first buying a Florida nightclub at which he sings and does a peculiar stand-up act, then performing in progressively smaller and dingier clubs once he loses his own. It's an awful act, but what's LaMotta going to do after he's been famous? His ego simply won't allow him to fade back into anonymity.
At least it looks nice. Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman shoot in crisp black and white, calling to mind the hard-boiled pictures of the movie's 1950s setting. It's a clean-looking picture, with the fights used like chapter breaks. Scorsese strives for, and achieves, clarity above all else in his storytelling. The boxing scenes are especially noteworthy, not just for the oft-noted trick of changing the size of the ring, but for how the camerawork switches between emulating how matches were filmed at the time (high, distant, stationary cameras) and a more modern, close-in style.
The performances are skilled, as well - it's relatively early in De Niro's and Pesci's careers, well before they descended into self-parody, and it's easy to see where their reputations came from. The characters they inhabit are seamless, the type that don't make big speeches and don't easily betray a better inner better nature with their eyes. Moriarty, in her film debut, also gives a strong performance, aging believably over the course of the film.But, in the end, I just couldn't bring myself to care. Perhas it's just me with a blind spot where boxing and jerks are concerned, or maybe it's the script by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin. Whatever the reason, this movie that I've so-often seen praised as an all-time classic left me cold, at best a triumph of craft over soul.
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originally posted: 04/21/05 11:29:43