Jake LaMotta, the Bronx Bull, butted his way to the middleweight championship of boxing in 1949. In his autobiography, Raging Bull, he says he “fought Sugar Ray Robinson so many times I got diabetes.” He played rope-a-dope with the Mob. He ballooned from 160 lb. (73 kg) to 210 lb. (95 kg). Within a year of retiring, he was convicted on a morals charge involving a 14-year-old prostitute and made a comeback of sorts as a road-show Rocky Graziano. He finally stumbled into glory when Martin Scorsese made a film of LaMotta’s life — in black-and-white, like Body and Soul and Champion — with Robert De Niro, at the peak of his feral majesty, in the title role. Roger Ebert is not the only critic who thinks Raging Bull is the best film of the 1980s.
LaMotta was an animal — a bull in the ring and a pig outside — and Scorsese is true to both Jakes. The boxing sequences are as violent, controlled, repulsive and exhilarating as anything in the genre. Scorsese layers the sound track with grunts and screams, animal noises that seem to emanate from hell’s zoo. Michael Chapman’s camera muscles into the action, peering from above, from below, from the combatant’s point of view, panning 360 degrees as a doomed fighter spins toward the canvas. Smoke, sweat, flesh and blood become Jackson Pollock abstractions as they pound home the essential bloodlust of those sweet sciences, prizefighting and moviemaking. The ring is where Scorsese’s art is most alive, because it is where Jake lives, where he can do battle on equal terms, playing by hard men’s rules. It is where Jake’s life finally achieves meaning when he wins the title — and where, in his 1951 match with the stylish Robinson, Jake loses everything but the pride that propels him over to the new champ’s corner to boast, “You never knocked me down, Ray!”
Jake also fights with his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) and his blond, teen-goddess wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty); anyone who thinks these Othello-Iago-Desdemona conflicts are the heart of the movie is welcome to fill out this paragraph. We’d say they are brutal but repetitious, without the build and threat of the fight sequences. But in or out of the ring, De Niro is monstrously convincing. He trained as a boxer for months until LaMotta, who coached him, believed the actor could be a contender; he gained 50 lb. (22 kg) in two months to play the aging Jake. As Jake in 1941 or Jake in 1964, as comer or loser, as raging-bull boxer or battering-ram husband, whether shouting obscenity or whispering apology, De Niro is always absorbing and credible. His performance is true to LaMotta’s life as the growing, then raging, then gelded bull.