Why does Raging Bull work so well? It is able to make the simple act of a man walking up a set of stairs a tense and terrifying moment.
Jake La Motta (Robert DeNiro) finishes a harsh argument with his brother Joey (Joe Pesci). Jake, in the midst of a paranoid episode, believes Joey had an affair with Vicki, Jake’s wife. Joey leaves frustrated, trying in his own way to convince Jake he’s not sane.
At this point, the camera pans to follow Joey out of the house, who leaves frustrated. It expertly stops at the stairs, sits for a few seconds, and then pans back to Jake. He walks forward, back to the same point the camera was placed before, beginning a slow walk up the steps. At this point in the film, it is inevitable what will follow. It is a series of steps that makes the audience uneasy, because La Motta is unnervingly headed to confront his wife.
He walks into the bedroom where his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) sits, making the bed. There’s a glow to her, as the light from the window shines on her back. Jake steps behind her, blocking the glow. As expected, he beats her, despite having little to no proof of any affair. It’s difficult to watch, but a culmination of all events prior.
Raging Bull, like all of the best sports films, is not about the sport. It chooses to focus on the story behind the ring, that of La Motta’s temper, control issues, violent streak, and terrible jealousy. He is despised, and should be. He is not likeable in the ring as he throws fights for money, and he is even less likeable outside of it.
Raging Bull is the polar opposite of Rocky. The latter is fun, lively, and full of energy. The former is downtrodden, filmed in stark black and white, with a protagonist you find it hard to even look at. Yes, Rocky is a likeable film, but Raging Bull offers depth, a character the audience has to put up with, yet at the same time care for.
Scorsese directs with care, and the choice to use black and white is brilliant. With all of the smoke and boxing scenes, the film feels as if it is not only set in the ‘40s, but shot then too. The film’s only use of color, that of home video from the early days of La Motta’s marriage, indicates the only time the boxer seems truly happy. It stands out as the only bright spot on a grim story.
Raging Bull is absorbing because it feels natural and real. Dialogue is mesmerizing, and not a line in the film feels overacted. It is powerful, and as La Motta takes out his aggression and frustration in the ring, the audio is not even necessary. The ferocity of his punches tells the story; he throws them with a sense of misplaced anger that sells the character, the story, and the film.
When you can convey emotion, despite jittery camerawork that rarely has a focus, something that exists to show the speed of the sport, you’re delivering the performance of a lifetime. That’s DeNiro in Raging Bull.
With minimal source damage, Raging Bull looks excellent in hi-def. While fine detail, such as facial textures, are admittedly limited, sharpness and clarity are superb. The AVC encode handles the grain structure and thick smoke flawlessly, without any noticeable artifacting. Contrast is flawless, and black levels deliver an image with depth that easily impresses. A few scenes contain minor edging, although it is brief and forgivable.
While the direction makes an attempt to keep the film firmly in the ‘40s, apparently the audio came from the same era. Dialogue is scratchy and hard to hear. Highs are strained, lacking fidelity. The minimal soundtrack is at times hardly recognizable. Surrounds in this DTS-HD Master mix are non-existent. The center channel is the only one used, aside from some minor music bleed.
Three commentaries are included, providing any details you could possibly want. Martin Scrocese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker provide technical aspects, the cast and crew (missing DeNiro and Pesci sadly) detail their end, while book authors, writers, and La Motta himself join in for the intriguing third.
A four-part documentary must be watched as such. There is no play all option. In total, this runs short of two hours. It is honest, involving, and detailed. If commentaries fail to generate your interest, this can make up for it. The Bronx Bull has film critics, various interviews, and La Motta himself speaking about his experience watching the film.
DeNiro vs. La Motta is a short series of comparison clips to show how accurate DeNiro’s portrayal was. Newsreel footage of La Motta defending the belt and some trailers wrap this all up.