If you’re going to show a Martin Scorsese film starring Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, you might as well start out the evening with a clip from a Scorsese film starring Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci…and Sesame Street. Right? Here it is (very NSFW language):
That was Casino, of course, but our feature presentation was 1980’s Raging Bull, the film for which Scorsese kicked his allegedly life-threatening cocaine habit at the urging of star and friend-in-need Robert DeNiro. Raging Bull consistently gets accolades – it tops lists of the best films of the ’80s, it’s widely considered Scorsese’s best, it was entered into the prestigious National Film Registry in its first year of eligibility…and for all that, I have a hard time believing it was that good. And that’s after seeing it. It’s beautifully shot, it’s well paced, it’s got some great, even fantastic scenes and impeccable acting, but the trouble with the film is that it lacks a particularly compelling storyline.
Raging Bull follows the real-life story of real-life boxer Jake La Motta, whose nickname was alternatively the Bronx Bull or the Raging Bull, the latter based on his notorious temper. He’s a boxer. He’s got a temper. Shock me.
To top it off, the film starts with a bookend, showing La Motta as a somewhat pitiable proprietor of a nightclub. But in the end, it’s not really the story of a man’s fall from the top of the world, it’s more the story of a man who, despite being a professional athlete, struggled for respectability his whole life. It’s hard to say that he didn’t deserve everything he got, and it’s hard to say he got dealt such a terrible hand in the first place, so its all plays out as something less than a story and something more of a decent documentary that’s ruined by knowing the ending.
But hey, boxing!
Jake La Motta was a middleweight boxer with a chin of steel (apparently he was only knocked down once in his career) and temper of fire. The temper helped him in the ring, but hurt him in the rest of his life.
For starters, La Motta dumps his wife for being unable to properly cook a steak and replaces her with the local 15-year-old beauty Vickie. He and Vickie have their problems, though, and most of these revolve around the fact that Vickie not only likes going out on the town but isn’t particularly shy about going out on the town with La Motta’s friends when he’s not around. There’s not any evidence that she’s playing around on him, but he doesn’t like it nevertheless.
La Motta also has a few issues with Joey, his brother and manager, who for one, won’t punch him at the dinner table so that Jake can show off how he can take a hit. For another, despite the fact that he arranges with the local mob to get La Motta a shot at the title fight, that shot comes with a bit of a string. He’s got to throw the match. (Let’s see, I don’t think I can think of any movie where that brother-as-manager-makes-you-throw-a-fight plotline has occurred…it’s completely original, right? What’s that nagging in the back of my head?) He does throw the match, but he’s so good, and it’s so obvious, that he gets in a wee bit of trouble with the Boxing Commission.
His brother also happens to be the only man he trusts to keep an eye on his girl, and when Joey catches Vickie out for a night on the town, he dances the car-door-on-your-head tango with one of the mobster offenders. That takes a bit of smoothing over, some of which includes that whole thrown fight bit.
Of course, Joey never tells Jake about the incident, so when a year later Jake later finds out about the fight and Joey refuses to be forthcoming about the reason, his ire rises as he first correctly assumes it was about Vickie and later incorrectly accuses Joey of sleeping with her. Joey, growing some stones, refuses to answer Jake’s pointed but super-inappropriate demands to know whether or not he is, in fact, sleeping with Vickie – and this only serves to solidify Jake’s suspicions.
So he beats the crap out of Vickie.
But, two puppy-dog eyes and a bit of begging later, she fails in her attempt to leave him. His relationship with Joey is irreparably damaged. Despite this, he finally gets around to winning the title, only to see his boxing career eventually come to an end. He moves to Miami to open a nightclub, Vickie finally leaves him, and he gets arrested serving alcohol and men to underage girls posing as legal.
And that would be that, except for the fact that when we get back to the other half of the bookend, fat Jake the nightclub owner looks into the mirror and starts reciting some lines. They sound familiar. They sound like…
Oh yeah. That’s the movie where the brother-manager makes a boxer throw a title fight. And that’s the point where I groaned a little bit inside. If your movie can’t stand on its own two feet…
I think the boys at MST3K put it best when they said, “Never show a good movie inside your crappy movie!”
And sure, it’s a bit harsh to say that Raging Bull is a crappy movie – it’s not, by any stretch – but in comparison On The Waterfront is a masterpiece even if Brando’s performance is a bit of a strikeout. What Waterfront does have going for it is a deep, compelling plot with a real resolution, and legitimate pathos for the main character – two elements completely missing from Raging Bull.
It’s a sports movie, it’s a bio-pic, and it may very well have saved Martin Scorsese’s life. Without Raging Bull, there’s no The Color Of Money, there’s no The Last Temptation Of Christ, there’s no Goodfellas, there’s no The Departed, there’s no Hugo. I owe this movie that much. But at the same time, I don’t see it appearing on my DVD shelf anytime soon.