Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Raging Bull (1980)
Studio Line: MGM

Robert De Niro gives the performance of his career as "Bronx Bull" Jake La Motta, a boxer whose psychological and sexual complexities erupt into violence both in and out of the ring. Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty are compelling as the brother who falls prey to Jake's mounting paranoia and jealousy, and the fifteen-year-old girl who becomes his most prized trophy. Raging Bull is filmmaking at its riveting best. You won't be able to take your eyes from the screen.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty
Academy Awards: Won for Best Actor-Robert De Niro; Best Film Editing. Nominated for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actor-Joe Pesci; Best Supporting Actress-Cathy Moriarty; Best Cinematographer; Best Sound. 1981.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1, standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Stereo, French & Spanish Digital Mono; subtitles English, French, Spanish; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 31 chapters; rated R; 129 min.; $24.98; street date 3/25/97.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/C+/D-

When I screened the DVD of 1980's Raging Bull. I hadn't seen it in a while, and though I always thought it was good, I never quite agreed with the tremendous critical hype that accompanies it. Best movie of the 1980s? I don't think so!

Anyway, since it'd been a few years, I was interested to see what I'd think. Now that I've watched it again, frankly, nothing much has changed. While Raging Bull is clearly a very well made and effective film, it still really doesn't do much for me.

Raging Bull resembles Taxi Driver in that both films are basically character studies. Neither had much of a plot - that wasn't the point. Instead they focused on giving us a living portrait of individuals. In my opinion, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver provided a much more interesting study, however; Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) just doesn't do all that much for me.

As with Taxi Driver, Scorsese does not offer any attempt at historical context for La Motta. By that I mean that we see both La Motta and Bickle as fully formed (and pretty screwed up) men; we don't receive any information about how they came to be who they are. Bickle's more obviously mentally-problematic than La Motta, but that doesn't mean that Jake's not pretty bad off as well. He spends the entire movie apparently trying to decide who he hates more: himself or everyone else.

Bickle is a study in self-hatred as well, and both men frequently project their negativity outward by seeing the world as a filthy, horrible place. The main difference is that Bickle's world was pretty seedy, whereas La Motta is more of a tragic figure; he literally had it all but he blew it because he couldn't cope with the demons that haunted him.

De Niro does an excellent job of fully portraying La Motta. At this point, he gets most of his recognition for this part due to his willingness to gain or shed weight for the role. It's like the time that Nicolas Cage actually ate a cockroach as part of a role (Birdy, I think? Not sure!). Unfortunately, that notoriety overshadows what is a masterful, full-blooded portrait of a man in constant pain.

Admittedly, we rarely get much insight into Jake's thought processes or his inner workings, but that's really how it should be since it doesn't appear that La Motta was much of a thinker; I doubt he spent a whole lot of time exploring his "inner self," and that radical lack of self-awareness comes through clearly in De Niro's performance. Jake doesn't act, he reacts, and he torments himself for the consequences later, such as in the scene where he beats his bare fists against a concrete wall and cries, "Why?!" repeatedly. La Motta obviously doesn't want to behave the way he does, but he lacks the simplest concept of how to change, so by the end of the film, he's left a faded shadow of himself.

In addition to De Niro, Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty round out the main cast as Jake's brother Joey and wife Vickie, respectively. Both are very solid but overshadowed by De Niro, something that was probably inevitable. Both characters spend much of the movie suffering, although both also abandon Jake when his abuse gets to be too much. Joey's a somewhat more believable character just because he has lifelong ties to Jake; it makes more sense for him to continue to take the abuse for such a long time.

Obviously, many women stay in destructive relationships as well, but it's harder to understand why Vickie stays as long as she does because we never see much indication about what enticed her into the relationship in the first place. There's very little depiction of the "good times" so we never really understand why she got involved with Jake at all. I also had a hard time believing Moriarty as a 15 year old, but that's just because I don't think ever looked younger than 30; she was only 19 when the movie was shot, but she appears at least a decade older. She must've popped from the womb full-formed!

In the end, Raging Bull is more a movie that I respect than one I enjoy. This has nothing to do with the fact that it's somber and a "downer;" I love plenty of films that not only don't end happily, but they offer virtually no joy along the way. No, there's just something about Raging Bull that turns me off. It's a tremendously well-constructed and executed picture, but it lacks a certain spark that might otherwise involve me in the story.

The DVD:

Raging Bull appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen side was rated for this review. Although not without some problems, overall the movie presented a fairly solid picture.

Since it was filmed almost entirely in black and white - a brief montage of "home movies" is the only color segment, and it's intentionally faded color at that - I didn't need to worry about the strength of the color reproduction; sharpness, print quality, and contrast were really the only issues at hand.

Overall, the image of Raging Bull generally looked generally pretty crisp, with most of the film appearing detailed and accurate. Contrast was strong, with solid distinction in the black and white tones. The main issue I had with the picture regarded the quality of the print itself. It often seemed weak, as scratches, hairs, spots and grain frequently marred the image. Granted, I didn't really expect Raging Bull to look spotless; I believe some of these faults were intentional, but due to the inconsistency with which they manifested themselves, I can't assume that, so it got a lowered rating because of these flaws. Nonetheless, it still provided a pretty positive viewing experience.

The Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of Raging Bull generally tended to be somewhat tinny and thin, but it wasnít not terrible. While speech didn't sound especially natural, it was acceptable and easily intelligible. Music played much more of a background role in Raging Bull than in many Scorsese flicks; the classical accompaniment is never nearly as prominent as the pop tunes in some of his other movies. It was often so soft that it could be somewhat hard to rate, but I heard nothing wrong with it.

Really, the only significant fault I found with the audio mix of Raging Bull stemmed from the accidental use of the surround channels. These speakers only were used intentionally for the fight scenes; we'd hear crowd noise and some other ambient effects at those times, and they worked pretty well. Unfortunately, dialogue and effects from the front channels occasionally seep through to the rears; this makes for a distracting effect. This didn't happen too frequently, though, so I found the soundtrack to offer a fairly acceptable experience.

Much less satisfactory, however, were the supplements found on Raging Bull. All we find is the filmís original theatrical trailer. A movie of this stature deserves better.

Perhaps someday Raging Bull will get a more elaborate DVD treatment, but for now, this bare-bones effort is all we have. As a film, RB remains an admirable enigma to me. I respect the movie and like parts of it, but Iíve never been able to truly embrace it. Still, itís a very well-made affair that deserves special attention for Robert De Niroís terrific performance. The DVD itself provides acceptable but unspectacular picture and sound plus almost no extras. Raging Bull should be seen, but it probably best merits a rental; this disc is decent but lacks the quality level necessary to merit a purchase.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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